Copyright © 2003 by Baxter Arnett III
Another summer was coming to an end in the village of Cristhelm. The once vibrant green leaves in the trees had taken on a new form of yellow, brown, orange, and red. The long warm nights now seemed shorter and much cooler.
Another summer harvest had come and gone and the villagers were now preparing for autumn, and the cruel yet inevitable winter. The season had seemingly passed without much notice.
Alexander Veldfane had seen many summers in Cristhelm. Forty six summers that seemed to grow shorter with each passing year. As each one passed he seemed to grow a bit more stern and resolute.
Many of the sights he had seen in his tenure as militia captain grew him into a quiet, untrusting man. He had slain hordes of goblins in the Frontier War of 918 and been one of the few survivors in the rodent plague of 922. His presence was influential to those around him, and his soldiers carried a loyalty to him beyond words.
As he dismounted from his steed and stood upon the road, the forest around him seemed to be unusually quiet and menacing. Many of the leaves had fallen from the trees, giving them an almost skeletal look. The wind had carried them to the road, nearly covering the entire expanse with a kaleidoscope of color.
Several militia soldiers stood in a small ravine on the edge of the road. They glanced about nervously, their hands resting lightly on their broadswords which hung at their sides.
Upon noticing Alexander approaching them, a young recruit rushed toward him. The soldier cleared his throat, then spoke.
"Sir, we sent a messenger as soon as we found her. We did not delay."
Alexander paid little attention to the words spoken to him. He strode past several onlooking villagers and made his way to the other soldiers.
"Garrett!" he called out in a stern voice.
A young looking, dark haired man quickly made his way across the ravine, adjusting his helmet as he approached Alexander.
"Yes sir?" asked Garrett quietly.
"The villagers do not need to see more than they have," Alexander said grimly. "Have the other soldiers gather them together and travel back to Cristhelm. You stay here with me."
Alexander turned toward the ravine, and carefully stepping off the road, he descended into it. The trees cast an ominous shadow across the ravine, and fallen leaves had formed a soft bed upon the hard earth. He heard a rustle behind him, and turned to see Garrett coming off the road behind him.
Alexander removed his helmet and handed it to Garrett, then knelt down onto one knee. He began running his hand across the leaves while visually inspecting the ravine closely.
Alexander stood and walked toward a large boulder that protruded from the base of the ravine. There lay the body of a young woman, savagely destroyed by an unknown assailant.
He stared at her briefly, allowing his eyes to survey the length of her body. Her long brown hair was matted and filled with mud, her soft white skin scratched and bruised. Her face was badly disfigured, her eyes had been removed.
He knelt beside her left arm, and, raising it slowly, he noticed an intricate bracelet, entwined with ivy on her wrist.
"She is in a better place," came a voice from above the ravine. "A place where pain and suffering do not exist."
Alexander raised his head to the road above. A thin, dark robed figure slowly made his way to the ravine below.
"Father Elstar, I sent the villagers back to Cristhelm with the militia," said Garrett. "Why did you not accompany them?"
"My place is here Garrett," said Father Elstar abruptly. "My temple stands full with perished souls and it seems that another will now join them. Innocent lives are being taken, as you know, yet whatever darkness that haunts us is no closer to being halted."
"Your place Father is with the weak and wounded," said Alexander plainly. "Go back to your temple and tend to your needy. Your services have been done here. Your use has now been served."
"Your words will be heeded, Sir Veldfane," snapped the priest. "But the Gods do not condone innocent life wasted. The blood of women and children has been spilt, and a shadow grows over Cristhelm!"
"We share this burden Father," said Alexander. He then removed a small dagger from his belt and crouched beside the body. Working carefully, he cut loose the bracelet from the wrist.
"With my word to you and the people of Cristhelm, I promise justice." he said.
"Come Father," said Garrett. "I will take you back to the village."
Garrett put his hand softly on Father Elstar's back and began to help him up the ravine.
"Garrett," said Alexander.
Garrett quickly made his way back to Alexander.
"Yes sir?" asked Garrett softly.
"Upon returning Father Elstar to his temple, go to see farmer Eldwere." said Alexander in a whisper.
"Why sir?" asked Garrett.
Alexander then placed the bracelet in Garrett's hand.
"You must tell him that his only child is dead."
It was at dusk when Alexander returned to Cristhelm.
The gate watchman nodded to him solemnly as he rode under the large archway leading into the village. Alexander paid him little attention as he spurred his steed across the cobblestone streets and into the village square.
As he glanced about, he came to the full realization of what effect the murders were having on Cristhelm. Many of the cottages were eerily dark, their windows boarded shut, their doors closed to strangers.
The few villagers that braved twilight glared at Alexander as he rode through the village.
"Do something!" screamed Adomis Derlanger.
"A beast has come for us!" cried Hansor
Alexander only looked forward, driving his steed faster than before.
It was shortly thereafter that he came to a large, well-lit establishment at the end of the village square. It was a massive building, covered with a thatched roof and surrounded with a large, oak fence. A small, handpainted sign swung softly in the night air beside the building. It read: "The Oaken Barrel."
Alexander slid off his mount, and after stroking its mane, tied the horse to a long wooden post. He climbed a set of small steps, made his way across a small porch to the front door of the building, and pushed it open.
The tavern was quiet and dim. A foul mood seemed to hang over the few patrons that were within; a kind of melancholy that Alexander knew all too well.
Sensing all eyes upon him, Alexander made his way across the smoky room. Removing his broadsword and dagger, he seated himself at a small corner table by the fireplace.
A short, chubby, sweat covered man walked quickly across the tavern floor to Alexander.
"And what may I get fer ye today Master Veldfane," said the man; all the while wiping off the table with a dirty rag.
Alexander removed his gloves from his hands and laid them on his lap. He ran his fingers across his face and let out a faint breath.
"Just the warmth of the fire Quegley," he said in a tired, soft voice.
"Yer always welcome here Alexander," said Quegley. "Rest yer feet, and yer mind. Tomorrow may bring a brighter sun, eh?"
A voice belted out across the tavern, "Bring me my bread Quegley, you balding fat fool!"
A chorus of laughter rang out across the tavern. Quegley slumped his shoulders, and turning his back to Alexander he hurried off to a nearby table.
Alexander slid lower into his chair and covered his face with his hands. It had been long since sleep had come to him. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, blocking out the sounds of the tavern. He then felt a hand upon his shoulder.
He opened his eyes to see Garrett standing before him.
"I was hoping to find you here sir," said Garrett.
"Should you not be at the barracks, Garrett?" asked Alexander in a hollow voice.
"Aye sir," replied Garrett, "but I need to speak with you."
"Then sit, and speak."
Garrett quickly moved to a chair at the table, and while removing his helmet and gloves he began to speak.
"Sir, I spoke to Thomas Browbittle, and he seems to think that we have a band of rogue goblins on our hands," explained Garrett. "Now
I don't like the sound of that one bit, it just don't seem right to me sir."
"As well it should not!" exclaimed Alexander. "I know goblins well Garrett, too well for my liking; and I can tell you no goblins did this."
"How sir?" questioned Garrett.
"Goblins do not come this close to human settlements, unless they come in packs; at that result their camp would have been located by this time," explained Alexander.
"Could it be ogres?" asked Garrett. "That could explain why each body had a part removed.
Perhaps the ogres are taking the parts as trophies."
Alexander turned to the fire and let out a sigh of frustration. "A beast is hunting our villagers Garrett, a beast like none I have encountered before," said Alexander. "Thirteen bodies have been savagely dismembered. I believe this creature does not kill out of hunger or for sport, it kills out of malice."
Garrett then reached inside his pouch and retrieved an object from within. He placed it on the table. "There is also this sir," he said.
Alexander turned from the fire and looked upon the table. There lay the bracelet of the young woman in the ravine.
"Did farmer Eldwere not desire a belonging of his slain daughter?" asked Alexander.
"He claimed it was not hers," replied Garrett.
Alexander stared blankly at the table for a moment. He then leapt from his chair quickly, and grabbing his gloves rushed toward the door; nearly knocking Quegley to the floor.
"Where are you going?" yelled Garrett.
"I must see Father Elstar!" exclaimed Alexander as he slammed the tavern door.
He rode swiftly through the village square. Cristhelm was motionless, save for an occasional leaf falling from one of the various elm trees that lined the road. Upon dismounting from his steed, he quickly climbed the smooth marble steps leading to the temple.
A small metal lantern cast dancing shadows across the dark oak door of the temple. Without hesitation, Alexander struck on the door with two heavy blows. A chill wind blew in from the east, and Alexander pulled his cape tightly around him.
The sound of several locks being freed came from within the temple, and the door slowly opened.
"Alexander!" exclaimed Father Elstar.
"Yes, it is I," replied Alexander. "I seek your wisdom, if the hour is not too great."
Father Elstar opened the door. "Please come in from the night air, Sir Veldfane."
The temple was quiet and calm. The moonlight came through the open windows and bathed the smooth halls with a soft glow. Father Elstar led Alexander up a small set of stairs and into a private chamber.
"Please, be seated," said Father Elstar with a slow gesture of his hand.
Father Elstar removed his hood, then sat at a large merylwood desk across from Alexander.
"Father, I know more of the creature that we seek," Alexander said.
"This is excellent news indeed!" cried Father Elstar. "What have you learned?"
"I fear Father, that the creature is not what we expected."
Father Elstar stood from the desk. He began to slowly pace the chamber, shaking his head.
"I feared this much Alexander," he said in a worried tone. "It must be a creature of mythical origin no doubt, one that is not recorded in our bestiary."
"No Father," said Alexander calmly. "This is no mystical beast. This creature is a man."
Father Elstar abruptly turned to face Alexander. "A man? What hoax do you play upon me tonight Sir Veldfane?" he giggled.
"Farmer Eldwere’s daughter did not own an ivy bracelet Father," said Alexander. "Yet upon her wrist one was attached. I believe someone lured her to the forest, someone perhaps that had her trust."
"Surely you jest Alexander!" exclaimed
Father Elstar. "A ivy bracelet that could have been attained from a secret lover, a village merchant, or found by chance?"
Alexander sat motionless in the chair. He stared into a large mirror that decorated the chamber. His face seemed more worn, his hair more faded than ever before. He covered his face with his hands.
"Perhaps you are right Father," said Alexander unwillingly. "Perhaps I am looking too hard for answers."
Father Elstar laid his hand upon Alexander’s shoulder. "Try to rest my child. Perhaps the end is closer than we think," he said.
"Perhaps," said Alexander as he left the chamber.
Alexander rode slowly to the barracks, his mind drifting. The autumn air was biting into him now, and his eyes felt heavy with weariness.
He looked at the dry, dead leaves below him. Never had he felt so helpless as he did now. The village lived in fear. Lives had been taken. Looking at the brown leaves, he wondered if they would ever turn green again.
Alexander’s steed suddenly jerked, nearly sending him into the soft leaves below. He glanced about quickly, looking for the cause of the disturbance.
Standing in the village square before him was a gray robed figure. His face was concealed by a heavy hood, and an especially long cape hung along the ground behind him. The figure made no motion or sound.
"Kind villager of Cristhelm!" shouted Alexander. "It is advised that no one be outdoors at night. Please return to the safety of your home."
The figure stood still for a moment, then quickly ran to the edge of a dark alleyway between two large buildings. Alexander squinted to focus on the shadowy figure who was now backing slowly into the alleyway.
Alexander leapt from his steed. The figure was slowly disappearing deeper into the darkness of the alleyway. Alexander laid his hand upon the hilt of his broadsword and slowly approached the alley.
"I am captain of the Cristhelm militia, I mean you no harm!" shouted Alexander. "Please return to the comfort of your dwelling!"
Alexander now stood at the edge of the alley. The gray robed figure stepped backwards deeper into the darkness. Alexander drew his weapon, and walked into the shadows.
"Vish Cordi Daem!" shouted the figure.
Alexander felt a strange tingling come over him. His arms became stiff, his eyes dry. His grip on his broadsword became soft and his weapon fell to the ground. He was aware of his surroundings, yet his mouth could not speak.
The figure slowly crept toward him. Reaching into the gray robe, the figure retrieved a small, curved blade.
Suddenly, the figure dropped the blade and slipped into the darkness of the alley. It was then that Alexander heard the sound of voices behind him. He felt hands upon him, and darkness then overcame him.
The pain in Alexander’s head was numbing as he awoke. Startled, he arose and reached for his weapon.
"You are safe sir," said Garrett from beside him.
"Where am I?" asked Alexander.
"You are at the temple sir. We brought you here as quickly as possible," said Garrett.
"The figure," said Alexander. "Did you catch him?"
"Figure?" questioned Garrett. "No sir, but we did find this…"
Garrett held out the small, curved blade. Taking it in his hand, Alexander inspected it closely. Dumbfounded, he handed it back to Garrett.
"There was a figure in the alley Garrett," said Alexander. "He said something in a strange language, a language I could not translate."
The door to the chamber slowly opened. Father Elstar slipped quietly into the room, holding a large bowl. Seeing Alexander awake, he gave a soft smile.
"I see that the paralysis has ran its course!" he exclaimed.
"Paralysis?" questioned Alexander.
"Our patrol found your steed," said Garrett. "We feared for your safety and searched the nearby streets. We found you unable to speak, and brought you to Father Elstar immediately."
Father Elstar took a rag, and dipping it
into the water, laid it across Alexander’s head. Alexander struggled to sit up.
"Garrett, take that blade to the barracks," said Alexander in a weakened voice. "I want to begin questioning villagers tomorrow about its origins."
"As you wish sir," replied Garrett.
"And for tonight Sir Veldfane," said Father Elstar, "You shall heal in my company. The effects of paralysis can be draining."
Alexander nodded his head to Father Elstar. The pain in his body was excruciating, and he slid softly back onto the pillow. Sleep took him.
It was within a short time that the pain in his head awoke him. Looking out the small window in the chamber, the first signs of dawn were coming to Cristhelm.
Alexander struggled to his feet. Despite his rest, weariness still wore on him. Staggering to the chamber door, he opened it slowly.
"Father Elstar!" cried Alexander as best he could. There was no answer. "Father!" he cried out again.
The temple was quiet. Putting his hand against the smooth marble wall he slowly made his was through the temple.
"Father!" he cried out again.
After a short way, which seemed like a long journey, Alexander staggered to Father Elstar's chamber. The door stood slightly ajar, and the soft smell of herbs and incense came from within.
Pushing the door open he entered slowly. The chamber was empty. A soft autumn breeze blew through an open window on the north wall, and several candles about the room danced with dying flames.
Alexander slowly crossed the expanse of the chamber. "Father!" he cried out weakly.
His vision blurred, Alexander felt his legs weaken beneath him. Trying to balance himself, he fell face down onto the cold marble floor. He heard footsteps behind him, but was unable to stand. Raising his head as best he could, he glanced at the figure which now stood before him.
"F..F..Father?" he asked.
"Ah, I see you have regained some of your strength Sir Veldfane," said Father Elstar with a wry smile.
He walked behind a cluttered desk in the chamber, sitting down slowly.
"But perhaps I am incorrect in your strength returning Alexander?" said Father Elstar mockingly. "Yes it is hard to regain your strength when you have been weakened with deadly Falcotyl poison. You should find your vision leaving you soon."
Alexander moaned helplessly. He managed enough strength to flip over onto his back, causing him to hit his head against the hard floor.
"Do not struggle Sir Veldfane, it will only make matters much more strenuous," cackled Father Elstar. "But do not fear, the poison will not kill you. I take too much pleasure in doing that deed with my own hands."
Father Elstar stood from the desk. His face darkened, and an evil looking smile rose upon his face. He walked slowly to Alexander and stood above him directly.
"To think I feared you!" cried Father Elstar. "I assessed you as my biggest challenge
Alexander, but perhaps I overestimated you? The others were so weak, but I needed you Alexander, I so needed you."
Alexander coughed uncontrollably. The pain was now at its peak, and his vision was becoming increasingly cloudy.
"You see the corpses in the graveyard would not do. I tried them mind you, but they would not animate," said Father Elstar in a frenzied tone. "I needed bodies that had died violently, murdered so it seems; and those types are quite taxing to uncover."
Father Elstar threw back his head and laughed loudly. Alexander felt himself slipping out of consciousness.
"The first time was the hardest Alexander, yes without a doubt; but it became easier as time passed," said Father Elstar. "And now with the corpses in my temple I need but one more piece of the puzzle."
Father Elstar walked back to the desk. Opening a small drawer, he retrieved a slender black dagger and held it tightly in his hand. He walked back to Alexander.
"The power of the dead is legend my friend," said Father Elstar. "With the bodies I have claimed my army will be quite formidable, but you Alexander, yes you will be their general!"
Father Elstar put the dagger against Alexander's throat. He shivered on the cold floor.
Suddenly Alexander made out a shadowy figure darting across the chamber. He saw a strange expression come over Father Elstar's face, then felt a warm substance on his face. Touching it, then looking at his fingers he determined its origin.
It was blood. He slipped into a cold darkness.
As the warm sun beat down upon his bed, Alexander awoke. Nervously he looked about, but realized he was in his bed, at the milita barracks.
Garrett sat on the bed beside him, and several militia soldiers stood at his door. Upon seeing him awake, they let out a loud cheer.
Alexander felt as if no illness had ever befallen him. He sat up easily in the bed. Remembering his encounter he rubbed his fingers against his face. It was dry.
"Garrett, what happened?" he asked eagerly.
"I came back to the temple to check on you sir," said Garrett. "I found you on your back in Father Elstar's chamber. He was crouching beside you, a dagger to your throat!"
"What happened to him?" questioned Alexander.
Garrett looked downward regretfully. "I did as my first instinct commanded of me sir," he said. "His soul has passed."
Alexander paused then slowly looked to the ceiling. He let out a sigh of relief.
"It was him Garrett," he said. "I cannot find the strength to believe it. I trusted him so."
"We found an ominous book sir," said Garrett. "It was a book of spells, one of ancient origin. It detailed the process of raising and commanding the dead. Apparently sir, the victims were to be murdered by the caster; and with each corpse a body part was to be removed and used in the raising, as some sort of arcane reagent."
"The bodies," said Alexander. "Had they been raised?"
"No sir," replied Garrett. "They were still untouched in the temple morgue. It seemed Father Elstar had not quite began the ritual."
Alexander shook his head in disbelief. "He told me he needed a general Garrett, a general for his army. His mind was troubled, how could we not have known?"
Garrett laid his hand on Alexander's shoulder. He smiled and shook his head. "It is finally over," he said.
Alexander chuckled softly. He glanced at the window beside his bed and saw a single brown leaf float softly inside his chamber, landing on the floor. He lay back down upon his pillow.
"Now if you will excuse me gentlemen, I would like to get some rest before winter comes," he said.
The leaf kept its place upon the floor of the chamber, apparently unnoticed by anyone else in the room.
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