Piece 16 – Bird-Words, and Fractured Reality

The air outside of the cavern shimmered. The vast shadow cast by the Crow seemed to disappear. A tall woman robed in a black, feathered cloak walked into the cave. She stopped at the edge of the runic wards, her face a mask of contempt. Long, midnight black feathers stood out on her head where hair should have been. Her smile was abundant in pointed fangs.

“I thought it might perhaps be easier to address me in a more relatable form,” Badb said. “You mortals have such fragile minds and it’s so easy to upset you.”

“Really nice of her,” Curian snarked in response. “Big, mean bird thought about our feelings.”

Badb continued, clearly not bothered. “My sisters and I serve a purpose far beyond your comprehension,” she said. “There are many more worlds than there are stars in the sky, and for every world there are far more people.”

Curian yawned loudly. “Yeah, this is the part where you tell us about how those people need to die for whatever reason, justifying you stuffing your ugly faces with souls,” she said. “I’ve fought monsters like you. I know the kind of twisted reasoning you use to justify your actions. You’re all the same.”

“Oh? Is that so, little world-traveler?” Badb replied, her voice suddenly bitter-cold.

The air in the cave wavered, a strange glamour suddenly present.

“Fiend, what trickery are you trying?” Sophia snapped.

Badb stepped back. “This is no magic of mine. I take my leave, but this is not the last you’ll see of me. Next time I will be far less kind.” She vanished from sight, the last signs of her presence was the sound of monstrous wings as she took flight.

There was a soft pop and faint sparkle to the air.

“That was unusual,” Sophia muttered. “Something must have set off the magic of the wards, perhaps.” She waited for a smart remark from Curian, which had become her default expectation.

“The realism of this haunted house is wild,” muttered an unexpected voice. “These spiders seem real. Really real. Too real, maybe. Oh, damn. They’re actual spiders.” Sophia glanced over slowly as whoever was next to her shook several large, confused spiders from her sleeve.

Sophia reached for the dagger at her belt, taking a step back.

Not-Curian looked around. She was shorter than Sophia, although only a little, with a shock of pink hair that practically glowed in the cave’s low light. Her armor did not look terrifically sturdy, Sophia noted.

“Witch! What have you done with my friend?” Sophia said, immediately cursing herself. Curian would have had some remark about the generous use of the word friend. “Traveling companion. What have you done with my traveling companion?”

“Uh, what did you do with me? And did you call me a witch? A real witch or just like an insult, because neither option is terrifically nice,” Not-Curian said.

“Just who are you, exactly?” Sophia demanded.

“Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. Izzy to my friends. Jury’s out on you, person who calls people witch right when you meet them.”

Sophia blinked. “You didn’t use dark magics to imprison Curian and take her place?”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Is Curian your friend? Traveling companion? Either way, that’s a definite no. I wish I could do magic, but that’s some serious fairy tale stuff. Don’t suppose you have a name, huh?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I…It’s been a very trying day,” Sophia said. “Sophia. No nickname. May I call you Izzy or should I call you Captain Warpt?”

Izzy scratched her head. “You going to call me a witch again?”

“I suppose not, no, since it seems that was an error. My apologies,” Sophia replied.

“Izzy works, then,” Izzy said. “So where am I, exactly? Looks like I’m not in Kansas. Not that I was in Kansas.”

There was a sound from near the mouth of the cave. Izzy produced a shining, object and held it out in front of herself.

“What a curious crossbow,” Sophia commented, her eyes fixed on the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks,” Izzy replied. “It’s definitely not a crossbow. A crossbow would be more helpful about now, really. It’s a training plasma pistol. A broken one. I’ve never been too keen on hurting people.”

Steps outside of the cave grew closer.

“Me, neither,” Sophia said. She grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her behind a large, fallen portion of cave wall further behind the runic wards.

“Swear on me heart the runes spoke to me,” rasped a dry, hollow voice.

“That really the way you want to say that? That’s what you’re going with?” asked a second speaker. Shadows, despite the low light, crossed the cave’s threshold.

Izzy hazarded a glance around their cover and immediately fell backwards. “Oh crap, they’re skeletons,” she whispered. “Walking, talking skeletons. What the hell kind of Weirdsville is this?”

Sophia shrugged. “Evidently it’s not a Kansas,” she replied. “We’re currently traveling near the Rhimeghast Mountains, one of the major trading outposts for the Undead.”

Izzy held up a finger, her expression suddenly quite serious. “They’re real, live skeletons. Like, walking around with their skin missing. No insides or anything. Wait. How are they talking?”

“Same way we can hear you, I reckon,” replied one of the skeletons. “Clear as a bell.”

“Do come out and show yourselves, please,” said the other skeleton. “So as to not have to belabor the point, we can also see you despite not having physical eyes. Glad we could get that out of the way.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the heart comment from earlier, by the way,” the first skeleton said as Sophia and Izzy emerged. “We’ll be revisiting that when we’ve got a moment.”

Izzy raised a hand, smiling. “Now’s a moment. Why not discuss now?”

The skeletons hesitated as if considering Izzy’s suggestion.

“No, that can wait,” said the first skeleton. “First, though, we’ll need to take you to the Lady of Rhimeghast Castle. She’ll know what to do with you, you servants of the Morrigan.”

Piece 15 – The Perilous Road to the Rhimeghast Mountains

The sun was still low in the sky, the early morning frost only just having burned away, when Curian and Sophia prepared to leave the forest. The Orcs and Treants wished them a kind, long goodbye, repeatedly insisting they visit again, and so the duo departed with their next destination in mind. The Rhimeghast Mountains were still a long walk away, but they already dominated much of the horizon. Grasping vines covered in dagger-sized thorns flanked the dirt road, reaching deeper in some spots.

“The Rhimeghast Mountains used to be home to a bustling castle-town,” Sophia explained as they walked along. “That was ages ago, however. Long before the Liches claimed the mountains for themselves.”

Curian stopped without warning. Sophia bumped into her and stumbled back.

“Liches?” Curian replied. “Murderous mages who should be long-dead, but aren’t thanks to incredibly sinister magics?”

Sophia blinked. “Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.”

Curian held up a hand. “And we’re going to their domain, right? Where they’ll undoubtedly want to kill us.”

“If a Piece is there, what choice do we have?” Sophia asked.

Even at a distance, the jagged heights of the Rhimehast Mountains looked threatening–snow-capped claws tearing into the sky above.

“What else do you know about our destination?” Curian asked. “Shed some light on where we’re going.” She started walking along the road again.

Sophia walked a little faster to stay next to Curian, hoping to avoid any sudden stops. “Rhimeghast Castle-Town was a trade hub, and a favored place for weary travelers to rest,” Sophia explained. “It also happened to have a reputation as a place where criminals could bide their time while knights opted to look elsewhere.”

Curian nodded. “So it was interesting before Liches took over,” she said.

“Quite right,” Sophia said. “There are a number of accounts on when the Liches and their Undead troops arrived, but all agree on one point.”

“Oh? And what’s that?” Curian asked, glancing over at Sophia as they walked.

Sophia frowned. “Ah, well…The Liches aren’t particularly keen on visits from the living.”

Curian shook her head. “Of course they aren’t.”

The slopes began gradually, the last of the dense woods along the road thinning out before they gave way to boulder-strewn, unforgiving hills. The road wound along the steep incline of the hills, tracing what may have once been the safest path. Impossibly dark, gaping cave-maws were visible in the upper reaches of the hills.

“Makes me miss the cursed forest already,” Curian muttered as she braced against a bitter, frigid wind.

There was a sound like thunder, audible over the now-relentless winds. It was distant at first, growing louder with every passing second.

Curian turned around slowly, cursing under her breath. Countless birds shifted their flight path. The Crow did not care, knocking aside of the hapless avian creatures that failed to move from her path.

“Gods damn our luck,” Curian muttered. She grabbed Sophia by the hand and pulled her along. The sound of wings pounding against the air grew louder.

“We need to make it to one of the caves,” Sophia shouted. “But we have to be careful. I recall hearing tales of caves warded with protective spells. Surely some of those will have lingered.”

“And if we pick the wrong cave?” Curian replied, not breaking her stride as she continued to sprint along the winding path, cursing the inconvenient rocks her toes became acquainted with along the way.

Sophia shrugged. “We die, perhaps?”

“Delightful,” Curian replied. They reached a fork in the path, a cavemouth to their right. The trail continued to the left.

“No, keep going,” Curian shouted. “I don’t like the looks of that one.”

“Why?” Sophia asked, though she followed.

“The glowing, red eyes didn’t exactly give me big ‘come on in, we love visitors’ vibes,” Curian replied. They charged ahead, rounding the bend as the soil gave way beneath where they had just been.

The Crow flew closer, its pace measured and deliberate. Its caws sounded more like laughter as its wingbeats buffeted the hills with harsh gales.

“Not much of a choice left,” Curian said. She leaped into the nearest cave, Sophia following after. The darkness inside was oppressive, but something dull and silver was visible along the cave’s floor.

“Runes! Get behind them!” Sophia blurted out.

The wingbeats stopped, and a thunderous caw sent a blast of hot air into the cave.

“Come out, little insects,” the Crow taunted. “I won’t eat both of you. Yet.”

“Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Curian replied. “We bested your sister, Badb. What makes you think we can’t get past you? Maybe you should be more afraid.”

Badb, the Crow, cackled raucously. “Your only path to the Piece you seek is through me, fools. You sacrifice but a moment of your time to me and I will allow you to continue on your pointless endeavor. Easily the most reasonable deal you’ll get.”

Curian sighed. “And the only deal,” she said. “All right, you pestilent parakeet. Talk.”

Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

Piece 13 – The Truth in the Shadows

Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”

Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.

“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.

“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”

Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.

“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.

Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.

“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.

The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.

A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.

The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.

Dullahan.

“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”

Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.

“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.

Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”

Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.

“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”

The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.

“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.

“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.

Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.

“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”

Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”

Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.

Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.

“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”

The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.

“Wolf,” Curian muttered.

“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”

A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.

“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”

“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.

Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”

“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.

Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”

Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.

“Gnarlroot, what say you?”

Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”

The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.

An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.

“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”

“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.

A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.

“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”

Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.

“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.

Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.

In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”

Piece 11 – A Tale of Trees

Curian and Sophia backtracked slowly along the path to the Orcish encampment, the sun still exactly where it was overhead.

“Wonder how long we were there,” Curian muttered as she constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. Kil’Gronn had warned the Treants were excellent at remaining unseen until they wished to be observed, and that by then it was often too late.

“Keep your wits about you,” Sophia chided.

Sophia replied with a mock salute.

“Soph, your head’s full of knowledge,” Curian said. “Where would we be looking for this ol’ Treefellow’s ashes?”

“Elderbark,” Sophia corrected. “Treant burial mourning and burial practices vary from grove to grove, so I can’t say for sure. Since we’re looking for the remains of one of their leaders, however, I’d say we’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us.”

Curian sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that,” she said. She paused, holding a hand out to stop Sophia. She pointed to a between two trees flanking the path. A slim branch shifted gently, its motions mimicking a light breeze blowing through.

Sophia nodded. “We’re not alone, that much isn’t in question. What is it they’re waiting for, I wonder.”

Curian stroked her chin. “I’ve got an idea,” she whispered to Sophia. She turned to face the moving branch and offered a silent thumbs-up to Sophia.

“Hey, you! Shady pine over there!” Curian shouted. “What’s your plan for us once you’re done watching?”

“Subtlety isn’t something you pride yourself in, is it?” Sophia asked, eyes fixed on the now-stationary branch.

“When it counts, sure,” Curian said, smiling.

“A question you’ve asked, an answer you’ll receive,” rumbled a voice from among the trees behind Sophia and Curian. They turned around as the trees parted. Two Treants stomped their way into view, their faces worn by the elements but not beyond the point of recognition.

They did not look pleased.

“Crush these intruders now and leave their remains for the Orcs to find,” said the one Treant. It was the slightly shorter of the two, its bark dense and covered in callous-like knots. A dense tangle of vines fell from its canopy.

The other Treant, taller and lanky, its trunk and branches slender and stripped of much of their bark, made a grumbling sound. “These are no Orcs, no, but what curious creatures. An elf and a….”

Curian sighed. “Half-dwarf,” she said.

“Oh, how delightful,” the taller Treant replied. “I used to hear about Dwarven-kind all of the time from my saplings along the mountains.” They turned to the shorter Treant and gestured to Curian and Sophia with a long branch.

“Not Orcs.”

“Intruders,” the other one snapped back. “And we watched them go along with the Orcs.”

“As prisoners. Isn’t that what you saw earlier, Gnarlroot?”

A rumble issued from the other side of the trail, and a third Treant stomped into view. It grumbled and rumbled, moss-ringed eyes fixed on Curian as if it were looking through her.

“I do not trust this one,” Gnarlroot said. “She is an abomination.”

Curian clenched her fists and her sides. She inhaled deeply and let her breath out slowly, between clenched teeth. Sophia placed a hand on her shoulder. Curian flinched, almost imperceptibly, and Sophia took a step back.

“You look like a tree that’s seen its fair share of bird droppings,” Curian said. “Birds who like berries, I’d bet.”

The two Treants were silent, their focus fixed on Gnarlroot, whose expression remained impossible to read.

After a painfully long silence, Gnarlroot let out a low, long sound. It was like a persistent breeze dragging fine branches against a cliff wall. The other two Treants joined in.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian muttered. “They’re laughing.”

Gnarl root leaned forward, its face taking up most of Curian’s field of vision. “Why are you free, little ones? What did you give to the Orcs in exchange for you release?”

“They told us a story and let us go,” Curian said.

“Liar!” snapped the shorter Treant.

Curian tensed. “I’m not lying,” she replied, taking a step back only to bump into the towering leg of the taller Treant.

“Then tell the rest of it,” the taller Treant instructed. “We can tell if you’re not being honest.”

Sophia snapped her fingers. “That’s right, how could I have forgotten,” she said. “Treants can detect deception easily as they can sense changes in breathing.”

“Hearts beat faster at the thrill of a lie,” Gnarlroot grumbled. “You’re not lying, I don’t think, but you’re not telling the whole story. Tell, or I’ll let Burlknot punish you.”

“I’d like that,” the shorter Treant, Burlknot, said, clenching and unfurling the thick, dense branches of its hands.

“A question first,” Curian said. “Fair?”

Gnarlroot straightened up, looking skyward for a moment. “Perhaps. Yes, I suppose that would be fair. What is your question?”

“No story has just one way of telling,” Curian said. “What’s the Treant side of how things played out between Elderbark and Kil’Gronn?”

Gnarlroot grumbled and rumbled. “A story our ancestors have passed down, muddied by time,” Gnarlroot said. “The Orcs arrived on the eve of longest day, their numbers few. They paid no attention to our kind, as if they knew not of our presence.”

Gnarlroot waved a mighty branch through the air, and a dense curtain of pollen fell. Shapes moved through it, dark outlines easily visible amid the particles. A line of small figures moved through a miniature representation of the forest. The trees, many of which Treants, watched the Orcs silently. One Treant loomed taller and mightier than the others. It watched the Orcs closely, following after them from a distance.

The Orcs gradually slowed to a stop. They spoke to each other, animated in their gestures but with no words. One Orc stepped forward, a mighty spear in hand, and the other Orcs knelt down and gave him their undivided attention. They began to craft simple huts from mud and fallen branches.

The shapes sped along in the pollen, Gnarlroot waving its branch to add to the pollen occasionally.

The Orcs began to cut down trees.

“The Orcs cut down trees at first, and then they came for Treants,” Gnarlroot said. “Elderbark, the first of our kind to spring forth from the soil of this forest, would not stand idly by. They confronted the Orcs, asking that they simply take no more than they need.”

The Orcs grew darker amid the pollen, outlines of weapons becoming clearer. Some, however, wielded clubs surrounded by pollen with an ethereal glow. The glow spread from the clubs to anything they touched, and soon the pollen was gone.

“The Orcs caused much destruction that day,” Gnarlroot said. “It was only once their foul leader, Gronn the Terrible, was felled that we could find peace. Or so our ancestors had thought.”

Sophia stepped forward. “I’m beginning to think I understand,” she said. “I wonder if there may be a way to help both you and the Orcs, but I suspect it will be no small feat.”

Gnarlroot leaned down, closer once again. “And just why would that be, do you think?” they asked.

“I believe,” Sophia replied, “that your kind and the Orcs would have to work together.”

A rustling sound came from the underbrush. Orcs rushed forth, weapons at the ready. Kil’Gronn emerged, a broadsword held effortlessly in one hand.

“We would sooner die than ally ourselves with these murderous trees!” Kil’Gronn shouted.

Burlknot roared with laughter. “Allow me to make that a reality!”

Piece 10 – Elderbark and Gronn: Eternal Enemies

Curian considered her words with great care. The Orc soldiers stood around the net she was still trapped in, each one wielding broadswords with the ease one might casually wave a dagger around. Sophia’s nervous gaze didn’t help reduce the pressure of the situation.

Kir’Gronn leaned forward, her chin resting in her hand. “Well?”

“Honestly, I have no idea who Elderbark is, but that sounds like the name someone with high hopes would give their wolfhound even knowing it’s going to die some day,” Curian rambled. She paused for air, then added, “We’re searching for pieces to some stupid, awful puzzle that could bring about the end of all worlds, and being all trapped doesn’t exactly aid in that quest.

Kir’Gronn chuckled. “And what of you, quiet one?”

“Sophia,” Curian said. “She’s the brains of helping me save the world. Worlds. Oh no, I hadn’t thought about it much until now.”

“Deep breaths,” Sophia instructed. “I am Sophia, a Keeper of the Astrarium and all of its knowledge.”

“The Astrarium, you say,” Kir’Gronn mused. “Then surely you know where you are, do you not?”

Sophia shook her head. “We traveled here by way of a tunnel,” she said. “I had no time to regain my sense of direction before your snare snagged us, I’m afraid.”

“Snagged us good, too,” Curian muttered.

Kil’Gronn stood, slowly approaching the net Curian and Sophia were trapped in. “Then you will find the answer varies depending on who you ask,” Kil’Gronn said. “If you were to ask my people where you are, you would be told you have found your way to the heart of Grimtusk Glade.”

“Catchy name,” Curian said.

“And who might say otherwise, if I may ask?” Sophia added.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “That answer is a story, but that story will cost you. Do you think you’re willing to accept such a steep cost?”

Curian leaned towards the netting, eyebrows raised. “What kind of cost for what kind of story? I’ve told some premium stories for only an ale or two, so it must be good. Plus you’ve got us at a disadvantage since, you know.” She gestured at the net.

Kil’Gronn unsheathed a dagger and, in a flurry of silver blurs, cut the net open. Sophia and Curian tumbled out to the floor, not a scratch from the blade on either of them.

Curian leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed despite Kil’Gronn still having her weapon drawn. “You could’ve just untied it and let us out,” she said. “Had to be flashy about it.”

“You’re free of your ensnarement,” Kil’Gronn said. “And so you can choose to listen or not. It will cost you, but trying to leave this forest on foot without our help would come at an even steeper price.”

Sophia shuddered. “So there’s something else that calls this place home,” she asked. “Is that why it felt like we were being watched as you brought us back here?”

“Captured us,” Curian added.

Kil’Gronn nodded.

Curian sighed. “We don’t have all the time in the world, you know,” she snipped. “So we’ll take whatever your cost is. Tell us a story, Queen Orc.”

Kil’Gronn tightened her grip on the dagger’s hilt abruptly. A loud crack resonated throughout the chamber, causing Curian to leap back and look away, shielding her face. She hazarded a glance back. The dagger rested on the floor, its hilt in pieces around it. Droplets of blood dripped from Kil’Gronn’s closed hand.

“I have been kind and patient with you,” Kil’Gronn sneered. “It would be wise for you to not to be so disrespectful.”

Sophia stepped in. “My apologies,” she said. “She’s not from this world.”

Curian gently moved Sophia aside, eyes narrowed. Her expression softened and she averted her gaze to not make eye contact.

“I don’t need anyone making excuses for me,” she said. “Apologies all the same. What’s this costly story of yours?”

Kil’Gronn picked up the broken dagger and sighed. “This forest was once bountiful and full of life,” she explained. “That was three generations ago, when my grandfather first brought my people to this forest.”

All of the other Orcs fell silent, their heads bowed.

“His name was Gronn,” Kil’Gronn continued. “His people respected him, and in return he never settled for anything less than seeing our people thrive. We made use of the plentiful trees here to build huts. We hunted the bountiful wild game that roamed this forest, taking only what we needed. And yet the forest grew angry with us.”

“You see, the forest happened to also be home to Ancient Treants lead by Elderbark the Terrible. He was a mighty sentinel, towering over every other tree in the forest canopy, and so my grandfather saw him approaching well before he arrived. He demanded audience with our leader, and so my grandfather met with him.”

Kil’Gronn paused, her eyes fixed on a distant place. “What my grandfather thought to be the beginnings of negotiations so that we may share the forest quickly turned into a slaughter of our people. The Treants surrounded our encampment. Their numbers were great. Their fury was inescapable. I watched my grandfather and many of my people die that day.”

Curian hesitated, stepped forward, and placed a hand on Kil’Gronn’s shoulder. Tears ran down the orc’s cheeks, but rage filled her eyes.

“My mother hid me well, and the few survivors you see are those present here. One day years later, I became the Chief over my people. My first act was to take a handful of my most elite guards with me to where Elderbark slept, and when we were certain he was alone we burned the bastard to the ground.”

Sophia gasped. “The magic in a single Treant,” she murmured.

Kil’Gronn huffed. “Indeed, the magic in a single Treant, and one so ancient as Elderbark, is something to be respected and feared,” she said. “That day was the last this forest saw and it is the very one we are living this moment. None of us have aged. No animals move within the forest. All is still. In freeing myself from the pain by exacting my revenge on Elderbark, I trapped us all in that moment.”

Curian opened and shut her mouth several times. “What can we do, then, to pay the price of hearing this story?” she asked.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “In truth, you are free to go should you wish,” she conceded. “The cost is the burden of knowing the nature of this forest, and the punishment my people have faced for as long as I can remember.”

Curian shook her head. “Right, and that’s awful,” she said. “But what can we do to make this right?”

“You would seek to help us though we captured you?” Kil’Gronn asked.

“Sure, you trapped us and brought us back here, but you were nice enough to us,” Curian said. “Besides, we still need to find the piece of the Prognosticarium that fell here. No going anywhere until we do, so we might as well make a full day of it.”

“I agree,” Sophia said. “What is it we must do?”

Kil’Gronn sighed. “The Treants will ignore you to a point, as you are not one of us,” she explained. “Your task, however, is sure to capture their attention, and then they will not likely be warm in their reception of your presence.”

Curian shrugged. “What’s going to get their branches snapping?” Sophia rolled her eyes so hard it was almost audible.

“You must find Elderbark’s ashes and bring them back here,” Kil’Gronn said.

Curian blinked a few times. “Ah,” she said. “I hate this already.”

Piece 9 – The Forest Where Time Dare Not Dwell

Curian and Sophia bobbed gently up and down in the net of vines, their involuntary rhythm matching that of their captors’ steps as they moved along the dense underbrush of the forest. Massive leaves and awe-inspiring flowers shifted past but appeared as if they had not moved.

“Fascinating,” Sophia murmured, wide-eyed.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian replied. “I was worried there was some sort of poison in these vines or I’d been bitten by something. This place is doing something strange, yeah?”

“Keep quiet!” hissed a voice from outside of the net.

Curian glanced up and her eyes locked with a glare so frigid it should by all rights have frozen her to death. She looked at the others helping hoist the net along and those walking around them.

All of their captors, Curian noted, were all Orcs. Their skin was the fair, soft green of willow fronds. They wore patchworks of dark leather mottled with plants that blended in seamlessly with the surroundings. Several of the orcs leading the group were only visible when the sunlight hit them just right.

“Not that you asked before you kidnapped us, but my name’s Curian,” Curian said, addressing the Orc who had demanded her silence only moments prior. “This is Sophia. She’s the brains of this operation. I’m the brawn. We share the burden of being the looks.”

The orc snorted, her eyes still fixed on a point ahead.

“Strong, silent type, I see,” Curian continued. “I tried going for that vibe once and ended up getting thrown out of a tavern for starting a brawl. Might have had more to do with me having a couple too many ales and accidentally tripping a wizard.”

Sophia shook her head. “If wizards from your world are anything like the ones here, they shouldn’t be trifled with much less tripped.”

Curian snapped her fingers. “Shit, I almost forgot the best part,” she added, careful to pause for effect. “Turns out it wasn’t actually a wizard, but three gnomes in a wizard’s robe they stole to sneak into the tavern. Turns out they had been banned.”

Sophia chuckled. “You do seem to attract chaos wherever you go,” she said.

“Is Chaos a nickname of yours I didn’t know about?” Curian shot back with a wink. Sophia sputtered, averting her eyes.

The orc who had commanded they be quiet chuckled. It was a short burst of laughter, immediately masked by the orc’s default stoicism. Hints of a smile remained at the edges of the orc’s lips around where her tusks jutted out.

The path had taken on a steeper slope down a hillside. In the distance, in the valley below, Curian could see wisps of smoke rising from what, at a glance, looked to be moss-covered boulders or lightning-split tree trunks. The trees surrounding the narrow path loomed tall, the canopy dense and allowing little sunlight through to the forest floor.

Curian realized for the second time since their capture that something seemed unnatural about the forest.

“Quiet,” the orc said again, her voice considerably more hushed this time. It was at this moment Curian realized what seemed off. The forest was completely silent. Even the orcs’ footfalls made no sound despite the countless plants that jutted out into their and the twigs littering the dirt trail they followed. No birdsong filtered down from the branches above.

The trees.

Curian couldn’t help but feel as though she was being watched as she looked up into the highest reaches of the trees. The demeanor among the orcish captors had shifted significantly. Though they had ignored Curian and Sophia for the most part once they had been secured in the net, the orcs carried on quiet conversations with each other–some joking, some serious, but none of that continued once they began their descent into the valley within the forest.

Curian nodded in response to the orc. She held a finger to her lips.

A faint shimmer, like lamp oil spilled on a rain-dappled cobblestone road, ran through the air just ahead of the small collection of cleverly disguised dwellings. The air hummed with magic Curian was familiar with but couldn’t place why she knew it so well, and as it passed over her as the orcs carried her and Sophia beyond it she felt her hair stand on end.

“Kir’Gronn,” said a familiar voice beside the net. Curian glanced at the Orc, an eyebrow raised.

“You asked my name, little chatterbox,” the Orc named Kir’Gronn said.

Curian beamed. “Nice to meet you, Kir’Gronn,” Curian said. “It would be nicer if we weren’t in this net.”

“I agree, and would like to also inquire as to where we are being taken,” Sophia added. “Would it be possible we walk alongside you?”

Kir’Gronn’s smile gave way to something more stern bordering onto severe.

“You are strange outsiders to this forest, and your presence makes no sense,” Kir’Gronn said. “No one has dared ventured to this forest since Time left us, and so you are abominations.” The group reached a broken stump, a relic of what must have been a mighty sentinel in the past. The orc at the head of the group pressed a knot with one hand and pulled a branch down with his other hand, and a portion of the stump slid away to reveal a spacious room. Sophia and Curian were carried in and set down on a large, circular platform at the center of the room.

The Orcs each took up a position standing along the wall of the circular room, weapons at the ready. Kir’Gronn walked past the platform, hands folded behind her back. She turned and sat in a simple throne carved into the wall.

“Think long and hard before you answer,” Kir’Gronn instructed. “Lie and you die. Were you summoned here by Elderbark? Why have you entered this forsaken forest?”

Piece 8 – The Race to Reclaim the Pieces

A gust of wind slammed hard against the door, though thankfully the door barely budged. The inside of the hut was simple but cozy–a bed jutted out from one wall; a fire crackled in the hearth, magnificent tongues of emerald, amethyst, and amber flames flickering around the iron cauldron held aloft by a single hook that didn’t appear to be attached to anything; a modest-sized table flanked by mismatched, hand-carved chairs on all four sides, took up a sizeable portion of the floor.

“You were followed,” The Soothsayer said. “Not that I’m surprised. I was expecting three guests. One familiar, one harboring ill will, and a stranger from far away.”

“I’m guessing I’m the stranger?” Curian hazarded.

The Soothsayer turned, his eyes meeting Curian’s causing her to flinch. His eye sockets weren’t empty–something was there, but it was like a hint of fog. Through it Curian could see bone.

“You’re not of this world,” The Soothsayer said, returning his attention to the cauldron. He shuffled to a small cabinet and produced two tankards. He took them to the cauldron, their handles gripped in one hand, and ladled a dark liquid into each. He turned to the table, setting the tankards down.

“Sit, please,” The Soothsayer said as he took the seat nearest to him. Curian and Sophia sat at each of his sides.

“Tea?” Curian guessed, glancing into to the tankard-full of inky black liquid. It looked more like the sea on a stormy night to her, and she found she couldn’t look at it for too long without shapes forming beneath the surface. She noticed The Soothsayer watching her intently.

“See something?” The Soothsayer asked, smiling.

Sophia opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short when The Soothsayer raised a hand.

Curian looked into the tankard. Shapes began to move around in the liquid again, gaining clarity the longer Curian observed them.

“The Crow commands the skies, their talons judgement rained down from the heavens,” Curian said, the words falling forward on command. “The Eel lords over the deeps, devouring anything and everything to satisfy their endless greed. The wolf prowls the forests and the plains, ceaselessly seeking out lost souls to snuff out. Three that are one. One that is three.”

“The Morrigan,” Sophia whispered. “I had always thought them a fairy tale meant to keep unruly children in line.”

The Soothsayer shook his head. “Your knowledge thwarts your wisdom,” he said. “The Morrigan are very real. Where Dullahan rides, The Morrigan follow to claim the fallen souls. We have much to discuss and only so little time, stranger.”

“I normally prefer Curian,” Curian offered.

“Let us compromise by saying I will call you stranger,” The Soothsayer replied, “and you will be able to remain safe in my home while Babd circles high above.”

“Fair enough,” Curian replied, eyes darting to the ceiling.

The Soothsayer sighed. “We have much to discuss and only so little time, I’m sorry to say,” he said. “I took the liberty of drawing up a map and marking down the places you must travel to should you wish to thwart Dullahan. I can give you no more information than that and would give you no less.”

Curian furrowed her brow. “Why can’t you?”

“And thank you for what you can provide!” Sophia added hastily.

The Soothsayer shook his head. “The spirits only give me so much to work with, after all, and my sight is clouded by something frightful on the horizon. You need to collect the pieces of the Prognosticarium before Dullhan, or he shall ride from world to world with death following in his stead.”

Curian stood up. “I won’t stand for that,” she said, trying to sound brave.

“And I’ll travel alongside you on this journey,” Sophia added.

The Soothsayer smiled. “You’re both quite brave,” he said. “Perhaps too brave? Time will tell. Drink up. That tea should keep you energized long enough to at least make it to the end of the tunnel.”

Curian raised an eyebrow. “Tunnel?” she asked.

The Soothsayer stood up, gesturing for Sophia and Curian to do the same. They did, picking their tankards up. The Soothsayer laid his hands down on the table, palms flat, and pressed down.Nothing happened at first, but after a moment of him pressing down on the table there was a light click. The floor beneath the table crumbled, slowly and deliberately, until it formed a narrow spiral staircase.

“Mind your step,” The Soothsayer instructed. “Give your eyes a moment to adjust once you’re down there, then follow the tunnel. You’re not yet ready to face Babd”

Curian gulped down the tea. It tasted far less terrible than she’d expected, but was more complex a drink than she’d normally reach for and so she offered a polite smile followed by a very abrupt and unexpected belch.

“The greatest sign of approval one could give,” The Soothsayer chuckled. “Now go. Time is a precious resource, and you’re both wasting it dallying here.” Curian lead the way with Sophia following slowly behind.

Curian paused, Sophia nearly bumping into her. “Thanks for saving us from the murder-bird,” Curian said. “And the tea. And the cryptic help, I suppose.”

The Soothsayer waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Less talking,” he scolded. “You can thank me later.”

Curian offered a lazy salute. Sophia bowed. They continued down the stair, the light fading the deeper they moved. The dim light from above was gradually replaced by a soft, green glow emanating from dense patches moss on the tunnel walls. Trickles of water trailed down the walls, tracing shallow valleys in the earth around them.

“Hope this is as sturdy as The Soothsayer’s place,” Curian said, glancing at the tunnel’s ceiling.

“Let’s move quickly so we don’t have to further investigate your line of inquiry,” Sophia replied with a smile, walking a little faster. Curian chuckled, following Sophia’s lead.

The tunnel sloped gently downwards, the glow from the moss shifting colors to a deeper green. Water dripped freely from the ceiling, its plunking against the tunnel floor the only interruption to the silence.

“Where do you think it opens up?” Curian asked.

Sophia stopped, glancing around. “I can’t say with certainty,” she said. “Only one way to find out, yes?” She smiled at Curian reassuringly, turned, and continued walking along.

The floor of the tunnel gradually, almost imperceptibly, began to slope back upwards. The gradual slope gave way to a more noticeable incline. The flat, featureless floor gave way to meticulously carved stairs. The duo climbed the stairs, the light of the moss gradually dimming as the tunnel walls grew closer and the moss grew more sparse.

Sophia stopped abruptly with a thud and a muttering of curses. “I suspect I found the exit,” she grumbled.

“Wait,” Curian whispered. She stepped around Sophia, careful to not hit her head. She reached blindly, moving her hands along the earthen walls until they scratched against a rough wooden surface. She carefully moved her hand along the wooden surface until she found something cold. She wrapped her fingers around it and leaned into what she hoped was a door. It gave way with a dull creak, daggers of sunlight piercing in around the wooden hatch.

“Not to sound weak, but a little help wouldn’t hurt,” Curian said as she continued to push.

Sophia leaned into the wooden hatch with her shoulder, pushing upwards as well. It shifted up, then fell forward with a soft rustle. The sunlight was bright, the air outside pleasantly warm.

“So beautiful,” Sophia said as she stepped out onto the hillside. Towering trees dense with vibrant emerald leaves covered much of the horizon.

“Can’t disagree,” Curian said stepping out of the tunnel. “The forest isn’t half-bad either.” She smirked at Sophia, breaking into a full smile when Sophia blushed. The forest, she noticed, looked familiar.

“This is where one of the pieces landed!” Curian called out triumphantly. She scanned the horizon until she spotted what she was looking for–a trio of trees that stood taller than the others, each resplendent in glittering golden leaves. Curian pointed in the direction of the trees and began walking forward. Sophia tried to keep pace, catching up with Curian.

Before they could process the sharp snapping sound, the world shifted violently. The net closed around them and jerked to a stop halfway up a nearby tree. The surrounding bushes began to shake as figures, concealed in clothing perfectly matched to the terrain, emerged.

Piece 7 – The Soothsayer, The Crow, and the Truth

“That does present a problem,” Sophia repeated for what must have, Curian thought, been the hundredth or so time. She paused, tapping a finger against her chin. “I don’t suppose you’re familiar with where the pieces of the Prognosticarium landed, are you?”

Curian raised her gaze to meet Sophia, fingers still pressed hard against her temples.

“I caught glimpses of where the pieces landed,” Curian said, jaw clenched. “I don’t know the name of any of the places, and I didn’t see much of what was around.”

“Giving Dullahan a clear advantage, certainly,” Sophia replied. She nodded along to her thoughts for a moment, mouthing words too quickly for Curian to follow the internal conversation.

“Aha!” Sophia cried out, snapping her fingers for emphasis.

Curian raised an eyebrow. “Care to share your breakthrough?”

“The Soothsayer! He’ll be able to help!” Sophia replied. Before Curian could respond, Sophia grabbed her by the arm and lead her to the door. She stopped at the edge of the beach and stared skywards, a hand held up to the stars. She took off sprinting again, disappearing from view as she ran around the Astrarium.

“I’ll just wait here,” Curian said, sitting down in the sand. She stared out at the inky blackness of the ocean, its gentle waves distorting the night sky’s reflection. There was a brief flash of something just beneath the surface, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The brief, unclear vision was enough to make Curian leap to her feet and step back closer to the Astrarium.

After several moments of only the soft notes of the ocean and the occasional seabird’s caw from high overhead as her company, Curian heard something being dragged along the sand. She looked toward the direction of the sound and spotted Sophia dragging a small wooden boat along the beach.

Sophia paused, hunched over briefly before offering Curian a polite smile. “Could you help?” she asked. “It’s heavier than it looks.”

“Oh Gods,” Curian said, warmth spreading around her cheeks. She hurried over and grabbed hold of the length of rope Sophia was using to pull the boat. They made it to the water’s edge and stopped. Sophia looked around the night sky once again before returning her attention to Curian.

“The Soothsayer is the only source of wisdom greater than the Astrarium,” she explained. “Some say he’s as old as the day before the world was born. With some luck and what you can recall of where the pieces landed we may get an edge over Dullahan in collecting them.”

Curian nodded along as she listened. “If Dullahan gets all of the pieces…” she said, pausing. “Bad things happen?”

Sophia pursed her lips. “I don’t have the entire answer,” she conceded. “Nothing I’ve read indicated a particularly cheerful outcome if you must know.” She sighed, shaking away whatever thoughts had crept in, and forced a smile.

“Ready to set sail?”

Curian shrugged. “I don’t suppose there’s any other way?” she asked, helping push the modest vessel into the sea.

“I see you know the answer,” Sophia replied, stepping aboard. Curian did the same, and gently pushed the boat away from the shore. The water parted gently around the small boat, ripples displacing mirrored images of the starry sky above.

Sophia focused on the stars, occasionally shifting the boat’s rudder with a mechanism at the helm. Curian fixed her gaze first on the horizon, and when that proved to be too difficult she then raised her eyes to the sky. There were so many stars, and if she watched long enough she caught one as it streaked across the blackness and out of sight.

“Beautiful,” Curian muttered.

“It is, isn’t it?” Sophia replied, still focused on guiding the boat. “Only rarely do I get chances to leave the Astrarium.”

Curian glanced at Sophia, who returned her gaze briefly. “Let’s make the best of this trip. For you.”

Sophia chuckled. “Very kind of you,” she said. “I suspect there will be many trials along the way, however.”

Curian frowned. Dullahan crept into her thoughts again, and she found herself wondering about the eel she promised to deal with eventually. She was no hero, only a lowly thief who happened to occasionally come into a few silvers here and there.

“Sure,” Curian replied absentmindedly.

A wide, long wisp of a cloud glided swiftly overhead, briefly blotting out a vast swath of night where it roamed. Curian shivered, pulling her cloak tighter around herself. She opened her mouth to speak again, but stopped short as something appeared on the horizon. It was small at first, very easy to miss against the backdrop of inky black sea and star-riddled sky.

A quaint cottage on a sprawling island, surrounded by trees.

“Our destination,” Sophia confirmed, offering Curian a smile.

The boat gently glided from sea to sand, and then it stopped. Another wide, vast cloud blotted out the night, moving opposite the previous one. Sophia tensed visibly.

“We appear to have been followed,” Sophia murmured so quietly Curian could barely hear. “We need to walk swiftly, but not run, along the path. Do as I do.”

Sophia moved along, melting into the shadows of the many trees flanking the path. This was, of course, something Curian excelled at, and so she followed suit. A sudden rush of air from above struck the ground, throwing sand up from the path. Curian shielded her eyes for a moment, and that was all it took to lose sight of Sophia.

“Gods damn it,” Curian muttered. She stared into the shadows ahead, but even with her acute Dwarven vision she still couldn’t spot Sophia.

The hair stood up on the back of Curian’s neck. Something was most certainly watching her. Another rush of air–this one hot, and right behind her. Curian hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Her face reflected in the one colossal crimson eye housed in a head easily twice her size, a gigantic, sharp beak passing by her left side.

Before Curian could react, a hand wrapped around hers. She heard a familiar voice command her to run, and before she could process what was going on she had taken off in a sprint towards the cottage. Sophia held her hand tightly, pulling her along.

Another swift burst of air followed immediately by a world-shaking caw was more than enough to let Curian know the bird had taken to the sky.

“Gods, my legs could fall off” Sophia cursed under her breath as she pulled Curian along. The door was a short distance ahead, and as Curian felt the dread giving way to a feeling of relief her foot found a root that had emerged at just the right angle. Her speed was enough to both stop her sprint and take her down hard, her hand slipping from Sophia’s as she fell to the ground. Curian threw her arms up in enough time to shield herself, and felt the warm sting of fresh woulds where the stones on the path had cleaved through her sleeves.

“Key! Give us the key!” the gigantic bird called out as it swooped downwards. Sophia grabbed hold of both of Curian’s hands and hauled her to her feet. They ran, not a word exchanged between them as the deafening roar of wings crashed through the air behind them.

The door to the cottage opened abruptly, a frail old man backlit by lanternlight suddenly visible. He held a gnarled tree branch straight ahead of himself, one eye shut and the other eye being used to line up the end of the branch with something.

Sophia shoved Curian to the side, leaping the opposite way. A jet of painfully bright light issued forth from the branch and met its mark. The great bird reeled, its course disrupted. It sneered, shrieking something older than words and twice as foul as any curse Curian had ever heard, and then suddenly, with a thunderous flap of its mighty wings, the creature shot upwards and out of sight.

Sophia reached the doorway and old man first, stopping to catch her breath.

“You have our endless thanks, kindly sir,” she said.

“Thanks nothin’,” the old man spat. “My bones had said you would be getting her sooner. They’re never wrong.”

Curian smiled. “You must be the Soothsayer,” she said.

“And you’re a regular world-wrecker,” the Soothsayer replied. “Get your asses inside before Badb circles back or my bones will have been way off. Can’t very well have that now.”

Curian and Sophia did as instructed. As the door shut, Curian was sure she heard the beating of immense wings growing closer again.