Ostog pressed in close and their faces came together almost touching. The world had been reduced to mere inches, everything else ceased to exist. Braedo couldn’t breathe Ostog pressed so close but the issue was moot for he was holding his breathe. The tension surrounded them, intensified, and smothered. Braedo opened his mouth ever so slightly to breathe, to gasp, the thick air, to take Ostog’s lips in his when the warmth between them spread, thickened and pulsed against Braedo’s stomach. Ostog’s parted lips didn’t move but Braedo felt horror as he watched the skald’s eyes turn milky and discolor. Looking down the eviscera from Ostog’s gut continued to rip its way out of the half-orc oozing across Braedo in slurry of blood and shit. Fear rose bitter in the young Shoanti’s mouth and he fought to push the corpse away, to get Ostog off him. With a final growl of defiance Braedo rolled the corpse him trailing intestine streaking blood and shit over his armor and face. Standing only a few feet away, absolutely still, watching the scene with an aura of seething rage and death was a man unrecognizable in deep dark shadow. The sudden realization of the figure’s presence shocked Braedo and he scrambled to run.
The orc hunt on the plateau was intense and the air already echoed with Shoanti cries of success as the routed orcs tried to run from the ambush. Hunts-like-Owl flicked the chak from the cover of brush and another running orc tumbled to the rocky scrub with a disk of metal in his chest. Hunts-like-Owl jogged over to collect his weapon. No sooner had it been wrested from the corpse but the straightening Shaonti tribesman was suddenly aware of the shadowy figure standing partially obscured by a tree. It did nothing but the impending violence radiating off the figure chilled the sweat along Hunts-like-Owl’s spine. Hunts ran.
Braedo Hunts-like-Owl tried to shuffle back away from the monstrous spider and the half-spider being beside it but he was too weak to move as they advanced.
The sound of whooping Shoanti cries turned to screams of agony rippling through the dark empty memory.
Jaalek’s corpse turned to look at Braedo with milk-white eyes.
Desperately Braedo pulled Ostog across the carpeted hall stopping to try to stanch the bleeding over and over but the array of guts trailing behind became longer and longer and helplessness threatened to smother him.
The thick plains grass held the drops of blood even as the sickly sweet scented wind made the stalks dance. Back and forth in the heat the green stalks swayed and the coagulating drops were coaxed to caress their way down to the waiting hungry soil. A malign presence suddenly walked by the edge of the lilac shrub. The boy shook with terror clutching the razor sharp disk unaware of the pain from his palms.
Running in the thick grass aware only of a world of green, a sky drenched with shrieks and cries and the cracking of bone.
Jaalek stands with Braedo against a terrible unseen foe when suddenly the Khellid turns and his skeletal fingers wrap around Braedo’s collar bone pulling him towards his rotting face.
The dark menacing form walks by the outside of the lilac again, slower. It knows the boy is there.
Oberon falls to the troglodytes and terribly wounded Braedo shouts a Shoanti cry and leaps into the inky blackness brandishing a chak. He does not have his klar. His childhood friend is dying. He is dying. The blood pool spreading from the black feathers of his blood brother told him what he needed to know. The ache and cold and numb hands from his wounds told him what he needed to know. The evil presence was here in the dark but he could do nothing but hack at it blindly. The lilac smell grew in his nostrils.
The boots of shadow and darkness stopped before the lilac hiding spot and the boy knew it was aware of him. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. There was just dancing bloody grass, the drip of tears and blood and piss, the stench of death, loosed bowels and lilac. The shadow didn’t move but the menace was there growing, building for the impending violence coming for the crouched boy.
Jaalek took the chopping blade of the chak and hissed a soft laugh as Moses, a shadow hound and Kade joined to defeat him. Oberon moved to join the fray. Braedo looked up and his pale face of desperate battle fury melted away. Oberon stood healed. The chak struck on its own taking a piece of the silent mocking barbarian-wight but it was another who felled the monster. Braedo stumbled and swayed as he took a breath and smiled. Everyone was busy turning to searching and recovering when the cold grasp came from behind and pulled the ranger into its chest and Jaalek’s rotting weapon-ravaged face slid into view over his shoulder opening its mouth and let a hot breath of summer grass, rotting flesh and lilac wash over Braedo’s face. It exploded towards the boy in his hiding spot.
Braedo sat up at the sound of the terrified wail and wildly looked around for a perceived enemy. It was ni-Ama’s wagon. He was stripped of armor and weapons and a compress had fallen from his head. Koya moved to her adopted son’s side. Her gentle touch guided the man back until he was lying down again.
“You are safe Braedo, it is only dreams and shadows now banished by the light of star and moon. You had a nightmare like the ones you used to have.”
Braedo took a breath and centered himself, remembering where he had been, what had occurred. He looked at her suddenly in concern.
“The others? Oberon? How fared they? Where are they now?”
“They returned with you my son and to rest and recover before searching the rest of the keep. They left again hours ago. Oberon is well and travels in Desna’s grace. It is you that concerned them. You fought near to death and when victory was had collapsed despite Desna’s healing. The spiritual wounds you have suffered threatened to take you from us.”
The Varisian woman whispered a prayer and poured a cup of strong herbal tea that Braedo swallowed even though he had always hated that medicine.
“I have to get back to them if they have returned to the keep. Oberon needs watching. I don’t know if I trust the shadow witch or the new man Moses and Kade practically kisses that scorpion. He’s a good man, for a magician, but wizards are unreliable given that they dabble in sorcery.”
Koya watched Braedo slip his chain shirt on and stopped him when he moved to stand.
“The wound to your soul has opened your scars Braedo my son. Be strong against what is buried there as I know you can be and have been. I am always here for you Hunts-like-Owl, Braedo Mvashti.”
Braedo regarded Koya with a mix of emotions and no small amount of shock. In the year since he had returned from the Lyrune-Quah she had never used his Shoanti name. He suddenly leaned in and pulled his mother into an embrace before kissing her cheek. When he pulled back she was smiling at him and whispering a prayer. The harrow deck was in her hand and its cards were shuffling in and out with great practice before Koya laid her hand upon Brado Hunts-like-Owl’s cheek.
“This darkness…,” a card was selected and Koya looked at it and smiled. She turned the card to Braedo revealing The Paladin. “You must use your strength to resist this darkness within you. You will keep it at bay and you must be strong enough to not let this adversity undo you before I have proven myself enough to ask Desna to heal the wound.”
“Of course Ama, you know I will. I love you.” He gave Koya another quick peck and gathered his weapons and adventurer’s sash before dashing out of the wagon.
Koya Mvashti watched her adopted Shoanti son dash off towards the distant keep and caught her other son Sandru’s concerned face watching as well from Amieko’s wagon doorway. The half-elven girl was worse and her eldest was concerned for his friend. She looked at the image of the paladin and gave a prayer that all of those under her care and in her heart would be allowed to continue their journey in this world.