[Author's note: This short story was slated to appear in the June 2009 issue of Breakaway Magazine, but publication was cancelled in January 2009 when Focus on the Family released the magazine and its staff.]
Eddic grew up a lonely and impoverished orphan on the streets of Dava Mirnolos, a mountain city guarding a trade route. Seizing an opportunity to better his circumstances, he joined a band of rogues known as the Yellow Jackets, only to discover that he could not stomach their unscrupulous ways. Isolated once more, Eddic fled their company for better friends, who helped him turn his life around. To catch up on this back story, read "Bound to the Brotherhood".
Uncomfortable on the packed dirt of the unnatural forest road, Eddic drifted alone among the trees a stone’s throw to the right, savoring creation around him. His boots left minimal imprints on the damp mat of needles and leaves of the woodland floor. Wild creatures scampered and flitted amongst the fir trees, barely aware of his presence. A thin mist cloaked everything and muffled distant sounds.
Life had taken him far from his days as a rogue on the treacherous streets of Dava Mirnolos. After three years with the elves who had rescued him from the Yellow Jackets brotherhood, Eddic now lived as a friend of nature. A beard disguised his face and gave him a wild look. Though armed and trained against the dangers he might encounter in untamed places, Eddic had not yet raised sword or bow in combat.
Hearing a snuffling sound, Eddic spun alertly. An uncommonly large raccoon lumbered toward him, a hostile gleam in its eyes. Surely this animal would not attack him…?
Countless raccoons had crossed his path before. A few had tentatively approached for food, but none had ever charged him. However, this creature looked wild and hostile. Eddic retreated and drew his sword defensively.
Eddic dropped the point of his weapon to keep the animal at bay, but the raccoon skirted his sword with unnatural reflexes and closed in upon him. Eddic shifted the tip of the blade to keep it between them just as the beast leapt for him. The point did it little harm, but interrupted its jump and sent it rolling to the ground.
The creature scrambled to its feet and tried again. Now on his guard, Eddic avoided its attacks, but the beast would not leave him despite numerous attempts to dissuade it. Finally, regretfully, he struck the animal down.
It saddened Eddic to have to do so. Though he knew the Creator had fashioned animals to be subservient to the intelligent races, Eddic did not kill them lightly, and never for simple sport.
Eddic knelt down beside the raccoon, studying its still form. He had never seen one so large or brawny. Its eyes were rimmed with mucus, and its mouth with foam. Raw sores punctuated its ragged, patchy coat.
Concluding the pitiful creature to be diseased, Eddic took the time to burn its carcass. To let other animals eat of its flesh would spread the plague further.
With that task completed, Eddic continued on his way. His goal, the city of Shaliers, sat where a small river ran into Lake Royal. On the far northern shore of that great body of water sat a magnificent city on a peninsula—Shaymore, the capital of a great nation. Though Eddic might one day make his way there, the closer, smaller city suited his intent perfectly for now.
As he considered his destination, melancholy seeped into Eddic’s heart. He much preferred the woods to the city, despite having grown up in Dava Mirnolos, a large multi-cultural center guarding a major trade route through a key mountain pass. At the same time Eddic had perceived his need for God, he had also discovered the wonders of creation, which he had never before explored.
Obediently, if less than cheerfully, he proceeded to the city where he believed he was meant to lead others to the Maker.
Later that day, 10 men in amber livery approached on horseback from the opposite direction. Eddic recognized them as members of a patrol for the king of Shaymore, whose lands he roamed.
By chance, the leader of the squad caught sight of Eddic and called his unit to a halt. The men drew weapons and fanned out their mounts, eyes scanning the woods.
“You there!” their leader demanded. “Come out where I can see you!”
Eddic stepped from under the eaves of the forest, hands raised peaceably and weapons untouched. Having become a law-abiding man, he honored those who kept the peace.
“Tell the others to come out and surrender,” the soldier demanded.
“I’m alone,” Eddic replied.
“Do you take me for a fool?!” the man retorted. “No one travels these parts alone.”
Eddic bowed. “I am at home in the woods, sir.”
“You’re a friend of elves,” the patrolman observed, recognizing the trademark courtesy of the unfallen folk. “What’s your name?”
“Are you part of the Diadem Company?” the soldier wondered.
“No, sir.” Eddic did not know them.
“Well, Eddic, friend of elves, be careful,” the leader bade him. “There are dangerous things afoot. The forest is uneasy.”
“Yes sir,” Eddic agreed. “I met a rabid raccoon just this morning.”
“You’ll meet worse than that if you aren’t wary. Brigands are out in force, too.”
“Thank you for the warning, sir,” Eddic replied, bowing again. “May the Creator guard your steps.”
The next day, distant cries of alarm pierced the woodland tranquility ahead, accompanied by bestial snarls. People were in trouble!
Weaving swiftly through the trees as he unslung his bow, Eddic set an arrow to the string. Within moments, he arrived at the scene.
A score of armed human mercenaries defended a merchant caravan against an onslaught of fierce lupine beasts. Their backs to the four closed wooden wagons, the soldiers stood with spears presented. The savage animals rushed in mindlessly, sometimes wounding themselves on the defenders' weapons, other times breaking through the line to close with a warrior.
Terrified merchants watched from the windows of the wagons. The creatures had already elminated the protectors of a wagon at the end nearest Eddic, clawing at the wooden panels to reach those inside.
Though having the shaggy, multi-colored coats of wolves, these creatures stood taller and stockier. They were uglier, too—distorted and diseased, with bloodshot eyes and mangy coats. Despite their reputation, wolves never dared attack so many people except in desperation. Mild winters made the hunting perpetually plentiful in the Jaymil Forest. This attack made no sense.
Still, there was no time to puzzle this out. Eddic drew back the arrow and released it. A large beast at the door of the undefended wagon rolled away, dead. With efficient motions, Eddic continued to launch feathered shafts, thinning the beasts’ numbers until none of the ferocious creatures remained near the vulnerable wagon.
Then Eddic set to work relieving the guards around the other wagons, and only dropped his bow to draw his sword when a pair of the wolf-like animals turned on him. Dodging behind the trunk of a thick fir tree, Eddic stalled one beast’s attack long enough to first slay the other. The second then fell in like manner.
In short order, the defenders managed to dispatch the last of the animals.
Several merchants burst from the wagons to thank Eddic profusely. Although politely accepting their gratitude, he declined their offers of payment and explained that he drew his needs from the land itself.
Excusing himself politely from the conversation, Eddic turned immediately to the caravan’s wounded. To prevent infection from the plague-ridden creatures, Eddic applied salves made from forest herbs to the people unlucky enough to have been bitten or clawed. With any luck, no disease would affect them.
A handful of victims were not so fortunate, however. Eddic helped the caravan bury their dearly departed, then gave both a eulogy and a prayer to their maker. The guards and merchants thanked Eddic again and proceeded on their way.
Following their farewell, Eddic studied the corpses of the animals, greatly concerned by the boldness and determination of their attack. Although akin to wolves, clearly they were afflicted by the same malady as the raccoon.
Aside from their increased size, their mouths were lined with a frothy foam and their thick coats revealed bare, oozing patches of red skin. Eddic did not know what to make of these creatures, but the pattern concerned him terribly. Likely enough, he had merely encountered the first of many more such animals. How was the ailment spreading? Could he implement a cure through natural remedies?
As he watched the large pyre of carcasses burn, Eddic refelected on what Mircaldor and the other elves would have said and done. Unfortunately, he no longer had the luxury of asking their opinions. Weeks ago, they had departed for places unknown, to rescue others much as they had helped him. Eddic had wandered alone since, finding his way to new places in his search for meaning.
After three years with Eddic in their company, the elves had urged him to go his own way, encouraging him to grow in his faith and not be dependent on them. Eddic had seen the wisdom of their words, and struck out to explore his destiny.
The elves had taught Eddic all the skills he needed to survive in the wilds—archery, swordplay, foraging, tracking, and fletching, to name a few. More important by far, they had introduced him to the invisible Creator and taught Eddic His ways.
Despite knowing it was time to strike out on his own, Eddic had battled a temptation to feel bitterness toward his friends. Although several weeks had passed since their parting, he still felt like a baby bird—freshly kicked from the nest and scarcely able to fly.
Now he wandered the Jaymil Forest in search of a calling. The elves had taught him the why of things—to serve God and benefit his fellow man—as well as the how—the skills he now possessed—but the what of his life remained a mystery. They had evaded his pointed questions on the subject, citing the need for him to discover it himself.
What was his purpose for being? For what had God set him apart? Why was he the man that he was? Now 19, he was grateful to no longer be a rogue in the Yellow Jackets, but felt no closer to finding his reason for coming into this world.
According to the elves, the highest of callings was to make disciples, to change people for eternity by reconciling them with their Maker, as they had done with him. But what skills did Eddic have to that end? He was not eloquent of tongue like the elves, nor was he particularly comfortable in the presence of strangers. The woodlands made a good home for him, as his semi-solitary nature testified.
Yet he knew that to be alone was to impact no one else for good. He needed to seek out others for their own souls’ sakes. He could not face God at the end of his life without doing something to lead others to Him. Perhaps Eddic’s purpose lay in cities, where people lived in great numbers.
Eddic had been proceeding toward Shaliers as he prayed over what mission he might fulfill when this problem of diseased animals interrupted his journey. For the sake of the natural order and the safety of those in the forest, he had a duty to investigate. The meeting of both skills and opportunity seemed to be his alone. He could still go to Shaliers afterward.
The misshapen wolves had left a track through the woods that even a city-dweller could follow. Eddic traced their path until he arrived at a cluster of gray boulders with holes dug beneath for shelter.
Having reached the wolves’ den, he explored with sword drawn, not knowing if any of the creatures remained. Sneaking through the lair, he neither heard nor saw any sign of life.
Just outside the wolf camp he spotted a freshly devoured deer carcass. Eddic puzzled over it as he approached. No animal would have voluntarily come within scent of the predators’ home, and wolves usually ate where they brought down their prey. So how did it get here?
Eddic’s own eyes answered the question. Outside the tight ring of wolf tracks, booted footprints encircled the cleanly-picked bones.
So men had delivered the meal, but why? Had the meat been diseased? Had it been deliberate? Eddic could be certain only by following the tracks, but deductions raced through his mind.
The prints led back to the road. Eddic estimated their number at 20, and it appeared that they had emerged from a smaller side-road to the left about a mile further. Being unfamiliar with this area of the forest, he did not know what lay ahead. Consequently, he drew his bow and kept a safe distance from the road.
Spotting the outskirts of a village the subsequent morning, Eddic approached cautiously. He left the bow slung across his back and walked upon the hard dirt track, hoping that he might pass for a neutral observer.
Ahead, a wide swath of trees had been recently cleared around the original structures of an established community, their stumps remaining. Dozens of crude cabins stood in place of the forest, built from felled logs.
Obviously there had been a village here, but not long ago it had experienced rapid growth. Where had the new inhabitants come from? Why were they here now?
As Eddic drew nearer to ascertain the answers he sought, a ferocious snarling ensued from a large, mutated dog chained outside the nearest cabin. It strained at the end of its chain, scrabbling ferociously to reach Eddic and tear him apart.
A dozen bearded men wearing a mix of cloth, fur and armor converged immediately on the scene from several directions. Spotting Eddic, they ordered him to halt.
Eddic would do no such thing. Knowing his skills and limitations, he whirled and sprinted for the nearest cover, where the woods met the edge of the camp a hundred feet away. One of the men released the snarling creature as the others followed in full pursuit.
Eddic thought he could outrun the men, but figured he would need to slay the beast. With a swift motion he drew his bow and turned, dropping the animal from 30 feet away. The distant men shouted their outrage and closed in on his position.
Turning, Eddic bolted through the trees, listening for his pursuit. The men behind could easily send more creatures after him, so he glanced back often as he ran.
Leaping a log and rounding the trunk of a wide spruce, he ran straight into the path of a bearded man in green. The stranger’s bow was drawn, an arrow already pointed at Eddic’s chest as he came into view.
The man studied Eddic coldly, then slightly altered the aim of his bow. With no time to react, Eddic watched an arrow fly at him.
And miss his shoulder by a hair’s breadth.
A yelping tumble sounded from behind Eddic. The archer had shot another misshapen hound before it could reach them.
“Run,” the stranger instructed gruffly, turning to dash away through the forest. Eddic followed, barely able to keep up. This man knew the woods as well as he.
From the running stranger came the song of a native bird. A distant call answered to their left. Another replied ahead and to the right. Eddic did not find it at all strange that people should communicate thus—he and his elven friends had utilized cricket chirps in the same manner. Eddic chuckled, remembering how frightened he had been when first he heard it, thinking the sounds’ makers to be his pursuers.
Who was this unfamiliar man? He resembled those from the camp, and yet behaved as if they were foes, treating Eddic like an ally. Other woods-wise companions lurked close at hand, it seemed, but who were they, and why were they here?
The stranger dashed among the trees almost as fast as Eddic’s legs would carry him. Gradually their running slowed to a tenable pace. The stranger employed a number of deceptions to throw off any who might follow.
With a final chirp, the man stopped. Hands on his knees, he bent over, panting hard.
“Who are you?” Eddic wondered, gasping for breath, but not so desperately.
“Thanks for the help,” Eddic told him.
“What are you doing here?” Eddic asked.
“What are you doing here?” Daergen countered.
“Finding out why all the animals have gone sick and mad,” Eddic replied.
“Then we have the same purpose,” the older man answered.
Eddic turned at a sudden approach. The soft footfalls had gone virtually unheard until now, but Daergen showed no alarm.
The newcomer was an elven man in green and tan, a bow over his shoulder. Shoulder-length blonde hair crowned his head, and joyful eyes shone from his face.
“That was a merry chase you led us on, Daergen,” the elf remarked with a smirk. “I was almost winded.” He chuckled warmly.
“The kid’s quite a runner,” the bearded man explained stoically.
“Greetings,” the elf smirked to Eddic. “What’s your name?”
“Edcanwold, sir,” he replied. “But I go by ‘Eddic’.”
“I’ve heard of you,” the elf stated with a smile.
“You have?” Eddic questioned, astonished. Even in his home city he had been virtually unknown.
The elf nodded. “I’m Doyer, a friend of Mircaldor’s.”
The elf bowed deeply, and Eddic returned the gesture.
“It’s a pleasure, Doyer. Mircaldor has spoken of you.”
An elven man and woman arrived then, both with dark hair. Eddic could not take his eyes from the maid, so captivating did he find her beauty. Having only met elven men before, he found himself completely unprepared for the perfect loveliness of an unfallen woman.
There was no lust in his stare, for he could not entertain impure thoughts about a woman so pure. Nonetheless, her flawless skin, shiny brown hair, refined features, and compassionate expression held him immobile.
Doyer laughed. “Edcanwold, meet Emardel and Larisa.”
Eddic bowed, feeling sheepish for having been so entranced by the elven maid’s appearance.
“Edcanwold?” Emardel questioned. “Then you must know Mircaldor and the Fellowship of Seven.”
Eddic nodded. “Yes, sir. But who are you?”
“You might know us as the Diadem Fellowship.”
“Do you mean the Diadem Company?” Eddic wondered.
“Yes,” Doyer interjected with a grin. “You keep calling us that, Emardel, and no one knows who you’re talking about.”
“But that’s what Fraelam calls us,” Emardel debated. “‘Company’ makes us sound like mercenaries or vigilantes.”
“Who’s Fraelam?” Eddic inquired.
“Fraelam Cheal is our leader,” Doyer answered.
“So, did anyone learn anything from that excursion?” Daergen wondered, changing the subject.
“You mean after all of that running, you didn’t?” Doyer teased.
“It’s alright,” Emardel interjected with a smile. “They provided an excellent distraction. Larisa and I were able to get in close enough to make some solid deductions.”
“Such as?” Daergen wondered.
“Just as we suspected, Venarden is behind it. He has moved back into the castle on the far side of the village, and the barbarian tribes joining him have felled trees and built cabins. They seem to be the ones distributing the disease, too, using barrels of some poison concocted by Venarden himself.”
“What has happened to his parents?” Doyer wondered.
“We do not know, but it seems as if Venarden is lord of the castle now,” Emardel answered.
“Who’s Venarden?” Eddic inquired.
“A sorceror-knight,” Daergen replied.
“How do you know him so well?” Eddic inquired.
“He has generated trouble in this forest for the past few years,” Emardel replied.
“Are you going to do anything about it?” Eddic asked.
“What are you going to do about it?” Doyer shot back.
“I don’t know,” Eddic responded. “But I’m ready to help, if you have a plan.”
“You should not encourage the young human to act independently in this, Doyer,” Emardel advised. “It is unwise to work alone when prying into the affairs of wicked men. He has already endangered himself enough in that regard.”
“Mircaldor and the others kicked me out of their group,” Eddic explained, thinking they might not understand his solitude.
“It must seem a little harsh, though,” Doyer remarked. “You're so young.”
“No younger than I was,” Daergen responded.
“Mircaldor rescued you, too?” Eddic asked.
“I don’t hold it against them,” Eddic said. “It hurt, but I understood why they did it.”
“Well, you’re welcome to join us,” Doyer offered.
“Assuming Fraelam agrees,” Emardel added.
“He will,” Doyer answered confidently.
Emardel seemed about to debate the matter, but Larisa agreed.
“He will,” she nodded, gazing into Eddic’s eyes so intensely that he felt uncomfortable and looked away.
Together, the five companions formulated a plan for confronting Venarden. Although many details remained unknown to them, the elves assured Eddic that they could adapt as the situation required.
Resolved, they began to approach the castle from the far side of the village. Eddic wondered, however, how far his unfallen friends would go to end this perversion of the forest.
“What if Venarden won’t stop?” he asked. “Are we going to kill him?”
“Only if we cannot help it,” Emardel answered solemnly, compassion in his eyes and voice.
Eddic wished there had been more time to explore the elf’s philosophy on the matter, but contented himself with the knowledge that elves valued life intensely. A dead soul could not be redeemed, so one who ended other lives must be dealt with.
Skirting the town and the newly cleared area around it, the five of them crept unnoticed toward the castle, whose far side stood at a cliff above Lake Royal.
Unfortunately, as they drew near to the outer wall, the trees became hostile and refused to respond to the elves, who ordinarily could gain the compliance of both plants and animals alike. Worse yet, their needled branches lashed out at the interlopers, tall trunks flexing to extend their reach.
Behind the stand of belligerent evergreens, a hedge of thorns guarded their advance as well. Although the companions stood only a hundred yards from the outer wall, there was no safe way for them to reach it.
“Now what?” Daergen scowled.
“We enter the way everyone else does,” Emardel replied.
Though attempting to pass through the village to the castle gates unseen, the five failed. A middle-aged woman unexpectedly threw open her cottage window and called to them.
“Hey! You’re not from our village!”
Emardel turned to her and bowed.
“No, madam, we are not. Will you call the guard?”
“Are you kidding?” she questioned. “You look like you’re going to stop Venarden.”
“You are not opposed to the idea,” he observed.
“Hardly,” she responded. “I’m just glad you’re finally here. My husband’s worked for Sir Sevaris since before we were married, and we can’t stand what’s been happening.”
“What is happening?” wondered Larisa.
The woman confirmed that Venarden was deliberately infecting plants and animals with manufactured poisons to make them dangerous. He intended to drive the nation of Shaymore and all elves out of the forest. The inhabitants of the cabins were his barbarian countrymen from tribes in the far east of the wood. They distributed his concoctions by various means, hoping to cause a pandemic among the animals until the forest itself drove out everyone not of Venarden’s camp.
“But how does the wildlife know which side a person is on?” Larisa asked.
“We all drink water from the well in the center of town. I think Lord Venarden has added something to it so they don’t attack us.”
“Perhaps we ought to drink of this water as well,” Emardel advised.
“Here,” the woman said, offering a full pitcher to them.
After each had swallowed a considerable amount of the clear fluid, they thanked the woman and prepared to leave.
“Ask for my husband Birtrem at the gates,” she instructed. “He’ll let you in.”
Hostile foliage flanked and overhung the road to the castle, but it yielded willingly to their approach. As the companions neared the closed wooden gates, Doyer stepped aside to a pair of turf-covered graves. “Sir Sevaris,” read one headstone. “Madam Ternae,” said the other. Both were marked with dates from earlier that year, one day apart.
“I should have guessed,” the blonde elf remarked sadly.
“Indeed,” Emardel responded. “Sir Sevaris would never have allowed this madness.”
“Yes,” agreed Daergen. “But how did they die?”
The five looked up at the moss- and ivy-covered castle made of green-gray stone. Relatively small as castles went, a free-standing keep stood inside its twenty-foot, moatless outer wall.
A gruff guard in a green coat-of-arms hailed them from above the gate.
“State your business,” he snapped, gripping a halberd as he eyed them warily.
“We’d like to speak with Birtrem,” Daergen replied.
Moments later, another guard peered down at them between the battlements. His eyes softened when he beheld the newcomers.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
“We’d like an audience with Lord Venarden,” Daergen answered.
“I’m not sure it’s safe,” Birtrem warned. “He doesn’t care for visitors.”
“If you let us in, we’ll handle the rest,” Emardel replied.
“As you say, m’lord.” Birtrem stepped away from the wall and barked orders to open the gate.
The sympathetic guard greeted them as they passed into the cobbled courtyard.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I don’t even have the key for the keep.”
“That may slow us down a bit,” Daergen considered.
“I can help,” Eddic offered.
The older man raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I used to pick locks for a living.”
“Be my guest,” Daergen invited, motioning Eddic toward the front doors of the keep.
Eddic advanced upon the lock, ready for traps. He saw none, but double-checked to be certain.
With a shrug and a prayer, he retrieved his tools and began to work. The mechanism proved simple to release.
“Who’d have thought my days as a thief would come in handy?” Eddic quipped as he returned his instruments to a leather pouch.
“God has used stranger things for His purpose,” Doyer replied.
A long unlit corridor led into the heart of the building. Emardel and Doyer led the way inside. Eddic followed, then Larisa. Daergen brought up the rear.
From a nearby sconce Daergen procured a torch, managing to light it with a flint and his sword edge. He silently handed it to Eddic and obtained another for himself. Eddic knew elven eyes needed less light than humans, so he did not ask why the unfallen took no torches.
Twenty feet down the passage, they emerged into a central hall with a high ceiling. Webs hung from every high place, giving an aura of decay and death. The chamber appeared empty, however.
“Is anyone even here?” Eddic wondered, thinking his own words too loud as he spoke. An imperceptible shudder swept through the keep, as if his voice had woken the structure itself from slumber.
“Hush,” Larisa whispered gently, casting her eyes upward. “You’ve disturbed something.”
Eddic stood with his back near a wall, looking around for any danger. In a heartbeat, Larisa dropped her bow and drew an emerald-studded rapier. As she lunged at Eddic, he sidestepped in sudden alarm. The elven maid pressed past him, raising her blade and swiping it into a patch of darkness just above and behind where Eddic’s head had been.
With a soft snick, her weapon separated the head and body of the largest spider Eddic had ever seen, its legspan five feet across. Both parts fell to the flagstone floor, the legs curling reflexively around the bulbous black body.
“Thanks,” Eddic said, somewhat unnerved by the nearness of his peril.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, smiling slightly as she vigilantly scanned for other threats.
“You did that efficiently,” he admired. “Like you’ve done it many times before.”
“Spiders are a favorite tool of the Creator’s enemies,” she responded.
“I notice you didn’t use your bow,” Eddic observed.
“A half dozen arrows can’t match one well-placed sword stroke when fighting spiders,” she explained.
“I’ll remember that,” Eddic stated.
“I usually just squish ’em,” Daergen added, hefting a small wooden table. With a sudden leap, he flattened another arachnid high upon the wall.
After they had fought off a few more of the oversized creatures, Eddic proceeded to the base of a wide stair leading upward. His companions did not seem inclined to go that direction, however.
“Aren’t we going to find Venarden?” he asked.
Emardel patiently answered, “He is the type of person one looks for underground.”
Daergen led them to the kitchen, where a stair descended into a cellar. There were plenty of food stores, but no exit. A careful search of the ground floor revealed a closet with a false back wall.
“He knows his actions are wrong,” Doyer commented. “Why else would he hide so well?”
“He might think his deeds justified, but knows others will oppose him,” responded Emardel.
“He’s right about the last part, anyway,” Daergen growled, glove creaking as he clenched his sword tightly.
Stone steps spiralled downward into darkness. Emardel preceded the others.
Twenty vertical feet later, the stairs ended at a narrow, dark corridor which led straight away. Proceeding along it, Emardel stopped so abruptly that Eddic bumped into Doyer, who had been closely following their leader.
“Step over this carefully,” the brown-haired elf instructed, indicating a pattern of chalk runes and lines drawn across their path.
Wondering what would happen if he did not, Eddic nevertheless complied.
The five continued on alertly, passing portals on either side as they silently approached an iron-bound oak door. Emardel beckoned Eddic forward again, whispering for him to unlock the door and beware of traps.
The two male elves flanked him, blades drawn as they prepared to charge in.
“Once you get it unlocked, step back and let the rest of us go first,” Emardel told him.
“Alright,” Eddic replied.
The lock was simple, and Eddic bypassed the trap easily enough as well. As soon as he had finished, he retreated three steps to allow the others in.
Emardel and Doyer burst through the door like lightning. Larisa and Daergen followed, bows drawn. Eddic brought up the rear.
They emerged into a long, narrow room lit by lanterns. Though shallow in front of them, it stretched away for fifty feet to each side.
A man in shiny, emerald plate armor stirred a cauldron with his back to them. He stood and spun at their sudden entrance. The forty year-old’s hair was fiery orange, and he wore a sculpted goatee.
“I thought I had heard something,” the man remarked. “It’s good to see you all again—those of you I know. I see you’ve recruited a new whelp.”
“Venarden,” Emardel began, “It’s time for you to stop perverting the natural life of the forest.”
“It’s Lord Venarden,” the man challenged.
“Your father was only a knight, not a lord,” Doyer corrected.
“Yes, but my domain is much larger than his was. I could just as easily have taken a greater title. ‘Baron’ has an appealling sound to it,” Venarden mused. “Someday I might even be a king.”
“Regardless of what empty rank you’ve given yourself,” Emardel responded, “We will not let you continue distorting the creation like this.”
“How do you know it’s me?” the red-haired man countered.
“Do I need to recite our evidence?” Emardel asked.
Venarden realized his bluff had been called. “Why should I stop?”
“Because you’re hurting people, making the forest unsafe for habitation,” the elf replied.
“That’s the general idea,” Venarden answered. “I’m glad to hear it’s working out so well, although I’m a little disappointed you made it in here alive. How many of your friends died from my defenses, if I may ask?”
“You’re lying,” the green-armored man insisted.
“Only the fallen races lie, Venarden,” Emardel returned.
“Then how’d you get past my traps?”
A sour expression came over the man’s face. “And what if I don’t stop? Will the unfallen commit murder?”
“Killing you is our last choice,” the elf answered.
“Obviously,” Venarden shot back, stepping forward to take hold of a corked glass beaker full of iridescent red-black fluid. “You’ve wasted far too much time talking.”
“We mean for you to recant,” Emardel explained.
“Recant for what? Giving the forest the means to cast out its usurpers?” Venarden demanded haughtily. “You have no business in the woods—you elves, with your silly invisible creator nonsense, bending the will of the land to your own purposes. I believe in a God I can see! Nature is its own god. And the humans are worse, chopping every tree in sight, enslaving everyone weaker. You think you’re superior to the animals, but you’re not!”
“We know your past, Venarden—and where this angst comes from,” Emardel soothed.
“So? You’re still wrong. We are meant to serve nature, not nature serve us,” Venarden insisted.
“The creator calls to you, Venarden. Why won’t you answer Him?” Emardel pleaded.
“There is no creator,” the green-armored man spat. “And it’s time you let go the stupid idea.”
“Search your heart,” Emardel urged.
“Search this!” Venarden hurled the flask to the floor directly before them.
At that moment, Emardel stepped and turned to his right, blocking Eddic’s view of the falling beaker. The glass shattered, casting the contents of the vial up and out. Flames exploded forth as the five turned away, shielding their faces.
When Eddic looked up again moments later, smoke had filled the room. Small fires smoldered in various places, flickering out as the sudden heat quickly dissipated. Eddic’s friends pulled themselves up from the floor, coughing and singed, but not burning. The iridescent gray cloaks on the backs of Eddic’s companions showed no scar, however.
Gray? Hadn’t the four been wearing green? Eddic supposed these cloaks were more special than he knew.
Not surprisingly, Venarden had disappeared. There was no sight or sound of him, and though the five of them pressed through the choking smoke, they could not find him.
Doyer found a stair hidden behind a hinged bookcase, and they all headed down it cautiously.
The air grew cool and damp as they descended, and the lap of water reached Eddic’s ears. Turning a corner, he saw a narrow cave leading out onto the moonlit lake. A stone walk led along the right side of a ten-foot wide inlet.
A sailed wooden sloop had almost reached the mouth of the cave, rowed by the man in green armor.
“The forest has a right to protect itself!” Venarden called out self-righteously as he emerged onto the larger body of water.
Unfurling the boat’s single sail, he ruddered to the left and escaped their sight.
“What now?” Eddic asked.
“We cannot follow,” Emardel replied. “We’ll try again the next time he appears.”
“What about the animals and plants he’s warped?” Eddic wondered.
“They’ll go back to normal without a regular supply of his poison.”
“And his men?”
“Most will surrender or flee when they learn Venarden is gone,” the elf answered. “But I suspect the villagers will be glad for the restoration of things.”
“It’s a shame we can’t bring back Venarden’s adoptive parents,” Larisa reflected sadly, shaking her head. “To think he probably poisoned them.”
“What are you going to do next?” Doyer asked of Eddic.
“I guess I’ll go to Shaliers,” the young man answered. “I’m supposed to make disciples, even though I really don’t know how.”
“Will you simply cast aside your gifts for a task you have no knack for?” Emardel inquired.
“What else can I do?”
“Join us,” Doyer replied. “You were a great help.”
“Really?” Eddic looked at Emardel, who seemed to make decisions for the group.
“Of course,” the dark-haired elf responded. “Besides, do you think you’re ready to start something all on your own?”
Eddic shrugged. “If that’s what I need to do.”
Emardel shook his head. “Stay with what you know, unless you have good reason to change. ‘Live as God called you.’” he quoted.
“But shouldn’t I be making discples?” Eddic questioned. “That means going into the city, where the people are.”
“You don’t think you’ll have opportunities outside the city?” Emardel encompassed the villagers with a sweep of his hand.
“Hmmm,” Eddic considered. “I could serve God in the forest, and make disciples out here.”
“It doesn’t sound too bad, does it?” Doyer asked.
“It is not an easy or safe life,” Emardel cautioned. “But people who’ve been saved from danger tend to be very grateful and open.”
“I have noticed that.”
“We use the material needs of people to reach and fulfill their spiritual ones.”
“It looks like I’ve found something good to do with my life after all,” Eddic remarked with a smile.