Becoming King/ Feast of Voraniss Teaser

The clearing was busier than he remembered it. Instead of just Lycans, he could now make out the chatter of Dryads, Elves, assorted Animal-Kin, Gnolls, Orcs, Harpies, one Kul’Matha, and a smattering of Pixies who were busy perching on Brutus much to his annoyance. Each time they landed he would try and swat them away, but they’d just come back a few minutes later to pester him.

The many conversations softened as Hygar approached, and he sat himself down upon one of the stump stools. It wasn’t his intention to stifle their exchange, but they all looked to him as if expecting him to say something. The large Werewolf cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the eyes upon him. “Greetings, friends,” he mumbled softly. “Per your request, we have gathered to discuss the happenings in Voraniss.”

Following suit, many of the gathered began to find their own seats; though some of them were content to plop on the ground, and Brutus stood vigil in the back as was his way. One of the Dryads wistfully clasped her hands together and sighed. “Thank goodness you’ve arrived, Hygar. There are many things happening in the forest that require your attention.”

“Would you like to begin, Lavendoris?” Hygar asked of the Dryad. They were kind creatures, elusive to outsiders as they spent most of their time within their groves or wandering the deep forest. He was fond of them, for they reminded him of Voraniss itself. If the forest was ever turned into a person, he imagined it would be a lot like a Dryad: Mysterious, beautiful, and giving…so long as you didn’t cross them.

“Oh yes, please. Thank you,” the Dryad stated, turning her attention to the group. “As most of you are aware, there have been many refugees entering the forest as of late. It is becoming difficult to keep track of them and make sure they understand the rules of the Forest. Why just the other week I caught a human trying to chop down one of my trees and I had to chase him out and send him running in the direction of Kenkilit for Cronin to deal with. We cannot continue like this or someone is going to get hurt.”

Brutus grunted his agreement. “She is right, Hygar,” he said lowly. “These newcomers don’t know the way of things. Not as a collective. They enter our borders and if they are lucky they are found by one of your Circle. If they are not lucky…” he jerked his thumb towards the Gnolls without any sense of subtly.

“What are you looking over here for?” demanded the largest Gnoll. Zok Bloodknuckle was his name, but he was only the most recent voice to step forward for their people. The Gnolls were frequently changing leadership and fighting amongst themselves. And if they weren’t fighting with themselves, they were fighting the Harpies. “You sayin’ we killed a few wanderers? So what if we did? They ain’t got no business bein’ in our space.” His words were buried deep beneath an accent flavored by barks, growls, and whines, but Hygar could understand it if he concentrated.

Brutus growled angrily. He didn’t take kindly to being sassed by the Gnolls. “If the Alpha says it is their business to be there, then it is their business.”

“We ain’t werewolves. Who says we gotta listen to your way?” Zok pushed back.

Brutus slammed a fist into the ground and the Pixies that were sitting on his head fluttered off to hide behind Lavendoris instead. “This is what I’m talking about, Alpha. The Gnolls continue to do what they want without any regard for anyone else. They need to submit to your authority or get out.”

“Get out? Try and make me, dog breath.” Zok stood up and stared into Brutus’ good eye. He was itching for a fight and Brutus wasn’t going to deny him.

In a flash, the large Werewolf pounced and the two were brawling on the ground and exchanging punches. Lavendoris yelped and tried to move out of their way, while the Harpies cackled in amusement. One of the Orcs got excited by the promise of battle and decided to jump into the fray by turning and punching the Orc next to him. This caused the Elves to get nervous and they drew their bows, turning their aim on the motion in the center of the clearing. Who knew how long the brawl would go on for if Hygar didn’t speak up against it?

“Enough!” Hygar roared. It was an uncharacteristically loud sound for him. Loud enough so that the hair on the back of Brutus’ neck began to bristle. “Is this what you want for Voraniss? Do you want to be an unruly mob of savages forever?” He furrowed his brow and shook his head in disdain. “Right now we have enemies at our door. Enemies that don’t care about your freedom,” he said pointedly at Zok, “nor your wolves,” he said at Brutus, “nor the Forest you all call home. If you do not unite to fight you will just be picked off one by one. If not by the poachers today, then by the Strangers from Beyond the Stars tomorrow.” His disappointment in them was intense, and despite their tough exteriors, they felt ashamed by his scolding. “Your petty squabbles can wait.”

Brutus released the headlock he had on Zok, and Zok removed his fist from Brutus’ gut. The Orcs helped one another up. Nobody dared to speak. The clearing was too tense and too uncomfortable. Hygar’s dad voice had cowed them all into submission. Well, all except for one. In the back of the clearing came a soft rumbling voice that spoke painstakingly slow.

“There is wisdom in the Wolf’s words,” said Autumn-Elm. “This forest has seen its share of bloodshed, and if we are to see more I should like to see us united and not opposed. As things were in the days of Vangrim.” He gave a nostalgic sigh, his wooden body groaning as he lifted his limbs to approach. “We need a leader. One that all people can rally behind.” Being an old tree he needed a break from all the excitement; so he paused to take another breath. “There is a precedent for this. The Giants had King Velindahl, the Animal-Kin had their Queen in Mon’ghora, the Wolves had their founder in Vangrim who was once a human Lord, and the Elves had Othorion Elderheart. Title and nobility invite respect on some level.”

Lavendoris urged the Dryads to move to Autumn-Elm’s side, taking care of him and making sure he was well. The poor old tree had already lost all of his leaves; more excitement was the last thing he needed. “You are saying we need a King?” she asked sweetly.

“Yes. Yes, I am,” the Ent replied. “There can be no confusion upon our laws, nor their enforcement, if we had a King.” He seemed relieved when the Dryads drew near, their presence healing the painful aches deep within his bark. “Kings unify lands and people. They create empires and defend them. I know better than most that time changes us all; we can either be flexible and adjust to what is placed before us, or we can stay the same to spite ourselves.”

Lavendoris hugged Autumn-Elm tightly, stroking her fingers along his barky skin. “What you are saying makes sense to me, wise one. But it begs the question…who should rule? What King is there for this new age? And could we agree? That is the choice before us.”

Zok pointed at one of the Harpies on the other side of the gathering. “The Gnolls won’t follow a Harpy. We’ve been fighting on and off for generations. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Well we don’t want to follow you either,” the Harpies hissed back, glaring at Zok.

A chorus of sound and discussion burst forth again. Everyone was arguing over old grudges and whether or not it would be acceptable to get in line behind one another. The Pixies squealed and tried to redirect the conversation to a more productive place. “Wait, wait!” they cried. “Instead of focusing on who you won’t follow, maybe think of someone that you would!”

“I would follow Hygar,” Brutus announced loudly, and without hesitation. All the gathered shut up and turned to pay attention. “You care about this forest and the people in it. All of us. You once had the chance to kill me and take my warriors for your own, but you spared my life believing that there was still something within me that could be of use to the forest and wolves that dwell here. You do not let hatred or personal grudges cloud your judgment when it comes to our wellbeing.”

Lavendoris smiled and nodded her agreement. “Yes, yes! Hygar, you once helped protect the forest from unnatural corruption by leading your adventurers in a ritual to purge it. You respect nature and those of us that are a part of it!”

Even the Harpies didn’t seem to have a grudge with Hygar. “You returned one of our stolen eggs. We haven’t forgotten.”

The present Kul’Matha’s tongue flicked curiously in and out of his mouth. “You do not encourage your Wolvessss to hunt in the ssswampsss. You leave usss our landsss and ressspect our independence.”

Zok grumbled and huffed. He didn’t want to say anything nice about Hygar, but he also didn’t want to lie. “Last winter the Gnolls were starving because they couldn’t hunt in the heavy snows. Hygar brought us meat.” He kicked at the dirt sheepishly.

“If Mogar Ironblood follows you, then we follow you too,” the Orcs agreed.

Hygar took another heavy breath and looked around the clearing. “The peoples of Voraniss that adventure with me have indicated through a vote that they too would like a King, and yet I am not sure that I am the one for it.”

“All the more reason you should be,” Brutus replied. “Those who are wary of the power they wield are the only ones fit to have it in the first place.”

Hygar plopped his chin in his palm and squinted his eyes. “If all of you will it, then it cannot be helped. I must accept the path before me, but I will need to turn to you for your collective wisdom. Voraniss is a beast like no other and she cannot be ruled as other Kingdoms can.”

“Fortunately you’re stuck with me,” Brutus laughed, baring his teeth in a jovial grin.

Lavendoris was clapping her hands softly together with newfound excitement. “We should have a celebration and invite all the Realms to come and see the spectacle!”

“I don’t know,” Hygar grumbled, “that seems like an awful lot of people.”

“Yes, yes!” the Elves insisted. “We shall make a holiday of it!”

“Can there be fighting?” asked the Orcs.

“And food?” asked Zok.

“Oh, what about games?” the Pixies inquired.

Hygar merely sighed.

Before he knew what was happening the rumor had spread throughout Voraniss. Come the spring he was to be crowned King.

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04. Finding Another: By Edward (Helkias) Hanscom

It’s been some time since I corresponded with the Corbachian War Council. For months I’ve struggled with the secrets I’ve kept from the other Broken Spears. The other Corbachians. Our time traveling together has led to a bond I don’t think can be replicated, not for me anyway. And yet it was all based on a lie. I lied to all of them. To Helkias.

I told Helkias everything prior to his leaving for Black and White, a masquerade ball. Which if I’m honest felt a fitting time to reveal myself for the low traitor I am. I expected cursing. I expected durns. I expected him to pick me up off my feet and toss me over the cliff. He did none of that. On the cliffside where we had so many of our chats, where he filled me in on his adventures alongside Cronin and his friends. Where he opened up about his past, telling me tales of his fights at his father’s side in Corbach, of his mother and how she cared for the sick during the plagues, of lost friends. Where he told me his hopes for the future. This grumpy and often silent dwarf-kin trusted me with all of this, and I betrayed him.

I sat there and told him of it all. The letters. My mentor. The council. And in the end, the fact that would change everything the Spears and Corbachians believed, that the princes yet lived. And he said nothing. Minutes past. He stared over Kenkilit. And when he finally spoke it wasn’t to tear me down. It wasn’t to swear vengeance, to tear me limb from limb. It was a simple question:

“Will you help me find them?” His voice cracked as he asked. But there was a fire in his eyes. One I had never seen before.

I was dumbfounded. But of course, I told him yes. He pulled me close then and in that embrace, I felt him shake. The sturdy dwarf, the stalwart captain of the Spears, this man I’d watch pull himself from rock bottom shuddered as he cried. I tried to comfort him. Until I realized he was beginning to laugh. He wiped his tears and jumped to his feet.

“Durn it girl, they live! Bwahaha! Me boys are out there just waitin’ to be found! Waitin’ on us, girl! Waitin’ for the durned Blackraven to take flight! Ah ha ha!” He shook his fists above his head and danced what I can only describe as a jig. I saw the mask he planned to wear to the feast under his cloak. He caught me looking at it.

“Everything has a story, girl. Let me tell you this one while my own brain percolates this news, bwahaha alive.”

Helkias’ father, Nurem, spent his son’s lifetime as a hunter of sorts. While in the village he worked as a blacksmith and helped where he could. But every few weeks Nurem would venture away from the village for varying amounts of time. When Helkias was old enough to be curious Nurem sat him down and told him of his band of hunters, The Vanguard. They took odd jobs from neighboring villages and occasionally wealthier clientele. They would hunt down bandits or procure artifacts. But their specialty was demons. From imps to greater fiends the Vanguard had trained and learned all they could in the libraries of Corbach to counter and destroy them.

A young Helkias took this as a challenge. He spent the next three years sneaking away to train with his friend Yrolf. The librarian at Corbach City’s library remembered Nurem, and was happy to tell Helk the tales of his father’s band. So it was that one his 17th birthday, Helkias waited on his father’s return. Each year the older dwarf-kin would ask Helkias on his birthday, what one thing the boy wanted. If it was in his power to do so Nurem did not ever turn his son down. So sitting by a cookfire outside their home Nurem returned to find the boy waiting, spear and shield laying against two packs.

“Take me on a hunt.” Helkias said as his father approached. Without hesitation, Nurem nodded.

Together they took to the road. A week they traveled in the early snows. At night they would either find respite in a tavern or camped along the forest paths. They spoke of the years past, Nurem had wondered what brought on his son’s sudden interest in reading and libraries. He expected Helk to take to the sword or spear, but not the boy’s intense desire to learn. He smiled.

On the coldest night of their trip, they sat across their campfire from each other. The sky was dark, clouds had moved in and snow likely. They caught the trail of a lesser demon and tracked it to a secluded area of a forest. The nearby village was plagued by disappearances and mutilated farmstock.

Helkias saw it first. Its golden eyes seemed to appear out of the chill dark over his father’s shoulder. Helk shouted a warning and lept across the flames, singeing his cloak. His father ducked out of the way and Helkias grabbed the demon. It stood two heads taller than he. But it’s wiry frame buckled under the surprisingly nimble form of Helkias. He wrestled it to the ground and held it there.

“Kantador hear my plea,” he shouted raising one hand above his head, “By your hairy ass and all the rest of your nonsense I ask you to bind this thing to my will.”

The flames flashed and died out. Helkias held it’s flame within his hand and without hesitation slammed his palm into the creature’s nose. It struggled and screamed as the flames engulfed its face leaving only bone, with the odd fleshy bit. As the flame engulfed the creature, Nurem took his axe and cleaved the demon’s head from its body, the flames stopped, the body remained whole.

“You looked so easy sitting there. I’ll kill your women and rape your cow.” The demon’s skull spoke without motion.

“You’ll hear its voice for a while yet, boy. “

Helkias nodded and pulled out a large coin. He tore the demon’s facial bone free from the rest of the skull and quickly strapped the coin to it. He tied off the rope.

“Yer mine now demon. The viscerocranium will never leave my person. It will stay wrapped until long after I am gone. Now, a simple matter, I require your name,” Helkias held the skull in front of him.

“My name breaks mountains and dries up rivers. You would melt if you heard it.”

“Yer goin’ ta tell me. Now.” Helkias scratched a divot into the coin with his dagger. The demon let out a screech.

“Fethalrimnar. Stop leave it. Fethalrimnar is my name and I call you steward of my life. Now stop.”

Helkias looked to Nurem who nodded and smiled. The Vanguard would live on. Would live on in his own son. Nurem looked to the sky and could just make out the stars. He told his wife everything she needed to hear.

I looked at the mask held by a small rope at Helk’s belt.

“Does it still speak,” I asked.

“Only occasionally. And only when I wear it. I’m sure with all the turmoil of today he’s going to be quite chatty during the masquerade. Maybe I’ll shut him up by dancing some.”

Helkias smiled and put his hand on my shoulder as he moved to head back to Kenkilit. He didn’t say it was okay. Or that he forgave me. Or that my place here was safe. He didn’t tell me anything. But it felt like I knew. As he made his way back home I saw he moved a little lighter, a bit more jump to his step. At least until he made it to the gate and saw the Spears contingent that would travel to Black and White.

“Durn it. I’m gonna have to leave all this. Bah.”

It has been weeks since that day. And plans are already in motion.

My last letter to the council was succinct. It was perfect. And I wrote it while Helkias paced behind me, drinking that god awful clear liquid he’s been so taken with. Smelt like you could clear paint off of wood. But that’s neither here nor there. The letter was less than I’d ever put to a page for those bastards. It wasn’t much of an ultimatum. It wasn’t even really a threat. It was a statement of fact really. It read simply:

The flames are not out and The Raven flies again.

I warned Helkias to not send them word, to just show up in Corbach one night. To rain Helfire on them. “But now,” he said, “They’ll tremble in their beds for enough time that I get to enjoy it. Then months pass. And nothing. They get comfortable with the idea that I’m not coming. And when they return to their beds one night. I’ll be there. Broken spear in hand. And then I’ll have my vengeance.”

His eyes got dark though the tone of his voice hadn’t shifted into his gloomy voice, he got when he drank too much. He was focused then. More so than I’d seen in a long time.

Alongside the barkeep they call Matthew and my watchful eye, The Blackraven will fly back to Corbach. And there he’ll tear apart the whole country to find you. I stopped writing the letters of betrayal. Now I write for a different reason. These journals are for you, Prince Eric. I will catalog the whole thing. And hope in some way it brings you closer to this man. They are for you to see what Helkias Gotholias Ryunn, son of Nurem and Alis, born of Corbach, Steward of the royal family, Voranian, Demon Hunter, Vanguard and best known as the Blackraven has done out of love for you and your family.

 

Legends of Voraniss: Vangrim, The First Werewolf (Part II)

Several years would pass in this way, but the wolves were good to him and never went too far. They moved quick enough to test his fortitude but refused to leave him behind. Over time it became easier and easier for him to learn how to move as they did; their techniques for hunting and travel becoming like second nature. Together they could take down larger and stronger prey and find enough food for the entire pack to thrive. However, these weren’t the only things that Vangrim learned from the wolves.

They also spent a lot of time roaming around to visit the different factions of the land, checking up on them to see what they needed. If the Elves needed specific herbs it was the wolves that guided their healers. If the Human hunters became lost in the forest it was the wolves that brought them home. Rumors of wolf-related miracles became stories and legends told between villages but the truth was much simpler than all of that. The wolves treated everyone that lived in the woods like they were part of the pack as best they could. The reality had been in front of Vangrim the entire time but he hadn’t realized it until experiencing it for himself. When the wolves spoke of community they meant the forest as a whole, not just those that looked like them. They were above the petty squabbles of Man against Elf or Animal-kin against outsiders. The wolves just knew how to instinctually embrace everyone as brother or sister. It explained why they had been so good to him when he first approached them in need.

When the Alpha called the pack to their favorite clearing for a meeting, Vangrim knew that something was wrong. Rarely did they have these formal gatherings unless some kind of important announcement was to be made. He could feel the sense of dread rise up from his stomach and into his throat as he joined with the others.

“I have called you all here today because change is coming to the forest,” the Alpha said sadly. “War is at our doorstep.”

“War? Why? What has happened?” The wolves asked, obviously distressed.

“There was a dispute over land. The Humans seek to settle it and farm it to aid their growing populations, but the Elves have already laid claim to it. They say they have been here longer than the Humans, that the humans have no right to it,” the Alpha answered. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Now they are ready to fight over it and the other Animal-kin are ready to kick them both out for fear that this war will shape the destiny of the forest for ages to come.” His gaze came to fall upon Vangrim with great sorrow. “Brother,” he said, “When the others look upon you they do not see the wolf that you have become. They will see only your Human shell. My heart aches, for I see no way this ends well for any of us. When it comes to greed, desire always overrides reason.”

Vangrim understood all too well the complications of the Alpha’s position. It wasn’t his fault that the others didn’t see the same sense of community that the wolves did. “Alpha, I will go and try to bring peace to these woods. You trusted me enough to make me part of your pack once, trust me again. Give me your blessing and I will fight for all that you have taught me.”

The Alpha bowed his head with a forlorn sigh. “You have my blessing as always, Vangrim. But go with the swiftness of the Stag. The hour draws late and time is no ally of ours.”

Vangrim didn’t hesitate; running deeper into the woods as he left the pack at his back. Behind him his brothers cried, craning their necks towards the sky above so that even the celestial bodies of the evening might hear their sorrow.

 Vangrim knew where he was heading even though his heart was full of fear. In the deepest reaches of the woods was an object of legend, something that the wolves and others referred to as a Standing Stone. Believed to be Dryads so old that they had petrified and become stationary, the Standing Stones were no laughing matter. Sacred and powerful, the stories claimed that these Stones retained potent magics of the ancient world such as those the Elves attempted to practice with great reverence. To touch a Standing Stone was to open yourself up to the possibility of having your wishes granted or the alternative of complete and utter devastation. Elf, Man, and Animal-kin alike spread the tales to their children in an attempt to make idle interactions forbidden. Old magic was never to be trifled with in such a casual way. Despite this knowledge, and despite the taboo, Vangrim felt he was left with no choice but to find one. He was resolved that their power would allow him to save the forest and the ideology of his pack.

It was when he finally found what he was looking for that the doubt and worry began to overtake him. Lingering at the edge of the grove, his legs began to feel heavy. What if the stone couldn’t help him? What if this was all for nothing and he failed those that had been there for him after everything he had gone through? He might have stayed there forever, locked in an eternal battle with his own anxiety, had the sounds of his brothers not drifted over the winds and to his ears. Hearing their sorrowful calls he found the strength to take one step forward, and then another.

Finally, close enough, he reached out with a trembling hand and placed his palm gently upon the stone. He didn’t feel differently at first, but soon heard a whispering voice inside his head. Surprised, he looked around half expecting to see someone nearby; but there was no one.

“It has been some time since I have had company, wolf brother. Tell me why you have come,” the voice said. It sounded both otherworldly and feminine like a sweet melody out of time.

Unsure if he should speak aloud or merely think his thoughts, Vangrim whispered towards the stone. “I came for your aid, ancient one. War between the denizens of the forest brews. The harmony and sense of community the wolves strive for will be destroyed if that happens. Their very way of life will disappear and be forgotten. I cannot let that happen. If it is true that you have the power to bring stability to this place then I beg you to make these dreams a reality.”

“What concern is it of yours if Elf or Man or Beast rules this forest? You will adapt and survive one way or another. Tell me the truth of the fear that lingers deep within your heart. Speak it aloud so that I may know you,” the voice replied.

Vangrim’s eyes filled with tears and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. “I have seen the darkness the greed of Men can bring first hand. These wolves, this forest that they love, they were good to me. This is my home. I don’t want to be alone again, I don’t want to lose them like I’ve lost everything else.” Making himself vulnerable before the stone Vangrim thought he would have felt like a fool, but instead, there was something incredibly peaceful about letting the words leave his lips.

“What would you give to protect this forest? To make sure that your beloved family is safe from the ravages of war?”

“Anything,” Vangrim answered quickly. “Anything you ask of me, ancient one.”

“And you would swear it upon me under the eyes of the Gods?” The voice was both curious and stern like it wanted to test Vangrim and caution him all at once.

“I swear it. I swear to all the spirits of the forest and the Gods up above that I will give everything I have to save this place from a pointless conflict,” Vangrim said. He bowed his head reverently. “You have my word.”

So be it,” came the voice. “There is no going back from this point on. All have heard your oath.”

The moonlight flared brightly without warning, causing Vangrim to cover his eyes. When he could finally see again, his pack had appeared in the grove. They paced about nervously and looked from Vangrim to the stone wondering what was happening and why they were called.

When the stone spoke again, this time it spoke to all gathered. “Drink of the water that gathers in the paw print of your Alpha here in this sacred place beneath the light of the full moon. When you do so you will find you have the strength and authority to speak for all,” there was a momentary pause as the wolves heeded the words. “But know this, wolf brother, you will be bound to your pack until the end of your days and they to you.”

At last Vangrim pulled his hand from the Standing Stone and moved to stand before his Alpha. They locked eyes and Vangrim took a deep breath as he asked permission with his glance. The Alpha nodded his head and trotted several paces away to leave his paw prints behind him. He was not one to deny the will of the Standing Stone. Not with so much at stake.

The other wolves began to speak in unison as Vangrim got on his hands and knees, lowering himself to the ground. “Pack is strength. Pack is family,” they firmly repeated the mantra; urging him on lest any last minute doubt return to haunt the poor man.

It was when Vangrim’s lips first touched that water his destiny was upon him and he became the first Werewolf of Voraniss. Both Man and Wolf, bound by the old magic of the forest and Elves. He was a part of all of them now and no faction dared defy the will of the Gods nor what they had made. He wasn’t the only one that changed that night either. When his transformation began, so did that of his pack who changed with him. War was averted by Vangrim’s actions and even into current times his descendants defend the forest that made them as some of the greatest warriors Voraniss has to offer.

Upon his eventual death, the forest honored him by making him the representative of the Wolf Totem. Some even say that during the full moon you can hear him still howling along with the other wolves like he never left at all.

Legends of Voraniss: Vangrim, the First Werewolf (Part I)

It is not a coincidence that Voraniss has an abundance of werewolves running wild and free throughout her forests. They are more populous now than Elves or Men, but this wasn’t always so. Before Vangrim arrived the Animal-kin were still suspicious of those that walked on two legs, even if they had the best intentions for the land they began to settle after the War of the Giants. How could those who did not speak the language of the forest understand what she needed? The Animal-kin had already defeated one tyrant in King Velindahl, so they found themselves very wary of his smaller counterparts; especially when their victory had come at the cost of Monghora and Sariandi. Further loss was not something they wished to intimately acquaint themselves with.

 The Elves tried the hardest to win them over, seeking to learn the language and harmonize their respective ways of life; but sometimes it felt as though they put themselves above nature. There was a sense of superiority about them, an entitlement that the Animal-kin couldn’t grasp. The Men meant well, but they were always building and striving to fill a void within their hearts instead of being content with the bounty all around them. For a while, there was an uneasy peace, with the groups tending to stick with their own flocks for fear of sparking conflict. Most of them were content to live separate lives, but there were also others who were victims of their own dark ambitions.

Vangrim first came to Voraniss during the time of this tenuous peace. A lost soul, Vangrim was a displaced noble from the west who had cast off the titles and glamour of his former life after his Uncle had tried to kill him during a political power struggle. Incensed with rage that Vangrim should inherit what he believed to rightfully be his, the Uncle had framed him for the murder of his own father and depicted him as a greedy heir who couldn’t wait to take up the mantle of the family lands for his own gain. Vangrim had been sent to prison to await execution, but a guard still loyal to his father’s legacy had freed him and helped him escape. That night Vangrim had vowed never to return to that life. If nobility and the desire to lord over other men was something so toxic that it could turn family against family; against their own blood, he wanted no part in it.

It took a little getting used to, but Vangrim found that he felt free without the confines of the luxuries he had once known. Instead of sleeping in a bed where he was pampered with expensive sheets and blankets, he could sleep beneath the stars with a pine bough for his head; committing to memory the many sights of the night sky. It was an education that he never would have been privy to in the civilized world of Man. He learned how to walk like the fox and the stag, careful where he set his feet down upon the earth; and from the birds, he learned how to sense an impending storm or find water when he was thirsty. The most important lesson in his repertoire he learned from the river otters. They taught him about joy and learning to find happiness in even the simplest of things. But Vangrim was still a man, and he was lonely for companionship; desperate for others to talk to and share his new life with.

The Elves didn’t want him because he was a Man. Other Men didn’t want him because he looked like a wild savage running around between the trees with no ambition and no goals; an uncomfortable drifter. All that was left were the Animal-kin. Vangrim decided to get into the deep forest to meet with them and see if they would give him a chance but he didn’t know what to expect. They had mostly kept to themselves out of precaution for being conquered or harassed again; what would they think of a wild man looking for friends? He wasn’t without a sense of humor for the whole situation. He had seen his reflection upon the surface of the river. His hair was unkempt and his beard was bushy. He smelled of earth and campfire smoke and looked nothing like the man he once was. He would have cared long ago about being presentable but that was the wonderful part about living in the forest; the wilderness was the great equalizer. A rich or poor man living out here would have the same chances. Nature was fair and didn’t care what you looked like or what you had in material possessions. Survival focused more on the present than hoarding luxury for a time that would never come.

It was the wolves he met with first. He heard their calls to the moon and followed the sound deeper and deeper into the trees until he found them gathered about a clearing that he hadn’t expected in the throng of this oaken maze. When they sniffed him out they began to circle him and sniff curiously, talking amongst themselves.

“What is this? It looks like a man but it smells like one of us,” one of the Wolves announced to the rest.

“Maybe it’s the Forest Walker,” another Wolf piped up. “He who strides between the trees on two legs. I heard there was one of them about.”

Vangrim humbled himself and lowered himself to his knees. He bowed his head and didn’t make eye contact with the great wolves. “I am called Vangrim,” he said softly towards the ground. “I am without a home and without belonging. I was hoping that the Animal-kin could grant me what other Men or Elves could not. Please, I mean you no harm. I just need a friend out here.”

The wolves chuckled and bared their teeth as they smiled. “You could not harm us even if you wanted to little human. You are but one and we are many. It is the lesson our kind can teach you. Community is mighty. The Pack comes with many responsibilities to others, but it always rewards those who give of themselves and treat such connection with priority.” One of the Wolves nudged Vangrim’s chin with his face in an effort to urge him to look up. “The Bear is strong, but he fights and dies alone. Wolves fight together. Pack is strength. Pack is family.”

Vangrim slowly lifted his head to look into the ocean of golden eyes before him. “I must ask…why are you so willing to give me what my own people have denied? Why not just eat me?” He knew it was a foolish question to ask, one that tempted fate, but he needed to know. What was behind the altruism of the wolves?

The largest of the wolves sat before him, tilting his head. His fur was white and surprisingly clean. The other wolves sat around him out of reverence, listening to what he had to say. “The Elves have many superstitions about our kind,” he said with a chuckle. “They put out talismans and charms depicting our faces, telling stories about what we will do if we are not appeased. Some of them believe we have great secrets of medicinal rituals, while the Men see us as great hunters to be worshiped by that quality and that alone.” He let out a heavy sigh and took a moment to lick at something that had been bothering him on his left leg. “The truth comes down to instinct. I do not smell the stench of evil about you and so I feel it is appropriate to show you mercy.”

Confused, Vangrim leaned forward in curiosity to seek clarification. “You can smell evil?” he asked.

The wolves chuckled amongst themselves and began to rise. “You will just have to come and learn our secrets for yourself,” they teased, before running off into the forest as Vangrim desperately tried to keep up.

03. The Truth: By Edward (Helkias) Hanscom

After returning from the construction site to the north, Helkias began acting strange. The lightness of the previous weeks remained. Yet he was more standoffish. Which is to say if you didn’t know the man he would have appeared the same. It was clear that something troubled him. Knowing how close we had been to the anniversary of the young princes I worried what it was he was carrying that we could not see. I made sure to join him on patrol one morning. So it was armed and armored alongside the dreaded Blackraven that I truly saw him and understood even more so than I could have thought the truth of why he was who he was now. And the truth that drove him ever onward.

“I miss bandits. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the durned bandits, girl.”

He was talkative that morning.

“A full breakfast,” he said before we left, “And a cool breeze at our backs. Makes me giddy it does.”

The patrol turned out to be somewhat uneventful, sighting the occasional pack of wolves, lycans or not, they bothered us not.

“They’re free,” I said as we took a break on an overlook of Kenkilit. Below us, the masons and the refugees and those Voranians that chose to live among us were hard at work. Repairs continued. But more importantly, new buildings and outlying walls were rising up. “Soon we’ll be a town proper. Hire a sheriff. Maybe a baker?”

“Aye, I’ve heard tell the elf girl makes cakes or something. Still hain’t seen it though. Ancient elf secrets are hard to pull out of her folk.”

“You okay, old man?”

He chuckled leaning against a tree just over my shoulder. He pulled out a well-burnt roll of leaf and lit it, biting off the end. Smoke billowed out around us.

“I lived the role of a legendary figure for a while there in Corbach. The shadowy billowy hellbent Blackraven. I was something out of a campfire tale,” he took a drag and shook his head. “I never killed like I did in the week after I learned what happened to the young princes.”

“You’re a warrior, Helk. Seem to me that comes with the territory.”

“Not like this, girl. Those dark and bloody days, I was lost in it all. The world focused to a pinpoint around me and nothing else mattered. Not life, love, people, nations. It was my spearpoint and their chest or backs or throats. I lived only for that. And I was wrong.”

He took his pack off and sat at the edge of the cliff, his boots dangling over a 500-foot drop. He seemed overly calm. Though calm draws upon a balance of emotion. Telling this tale he seemed devoid of the stuff.

“I killed Cronin’s men. For days. I don’t know how many my rampage took,” He stopped momentarily, “Eighty-five. Durned memory I killed Eighty-five innocent men before I turned my hatred on the ones who did the deed. Even after I confronted Councilor erm Headsman Prel. Even after I defeated the assassins. There was still a revelation to be had.”

He spat over the edge. I sat next to him. Watching for any hint or what was to come. A change in posture. A twitch of an eyebrow. All the signs my mentor had drilled into me. Signs of weakness, of feeling, of emotional attachment. In Helk’s body language I saw only regret.

“I left the refugees alone. It was dumb. But I was still that broken castoff then. It was before Cronin, Matt and I took to the Realms. Before we left Corbach. In those early days, we were lucky if we had watchmen at night. And I left. I returned to the last village we passed through.”

I knew most of this. I tracked his movements during those early days. Hooded and wearing rags I was just another refugee fleeing the Headsman’s wrath. The tale he told then, I already knew it.

“The Corbachian rains drenched us then. Unprotected in the valley it soaked through cloak, armor, and underclothes. I let it wash me. I hadn’t taken the armor off in days. But I was in search of a drink. So I barrelled through, soaked to the core of myself. I made it to the tavern in good time. It was empty save for the innkeep and a hooded someone. We drank quietly for what it was worth, good company I thought.”

A pack of wolves moved behind us. Stopping to listen.

“I drank well. And when I thought ‘last one ole boy’ I had another three. Drinking like that, with no mirth no celebration. Drinking to forget. That was how I lived then. It was my specialty. And so when the hooded man drew on me I was slow. Too slow. She gave me this,” He gestured to a faded scar on his chin.

“Managed to get out the door, but they were already waiting. Council guard. The best and brightest. Most trained by my own hand. Knew some of them since they were babes at breast. And there, wearing a shiny white, soaking wet cape was Ser Quioren. Up jumped bastard. The girl came out behind me. Five total. All wearing that uniform. The blasted star of the council and their new god. And there it was staring at me from the chest of my best friend.”

“Quioren,” I asked, knowing the answer. They grew up together. Were like brothers. It was prerequisite reading before I took Helk’s contract. My mentor had a few personal tales to add. How the two of them had adventured throughout Corbach in their younger days. Were to marry sisters before tragedy struck Helk’s betrothed. Helk didn’t know I knew all of this. So he continued.

“Aye, my brother. Yrolf. Replaced it with a Ser even before he earned his armor. Turns out if you use a title as your informal name it can stick.”

“Maybe I’ll become a Lady of Whosits.”

“Hah. I’ll support yer claim.”

The levity broke whatever spell he’d been under and he was nearly cheery for a moment. After another puff of leaf, the blank face returned.

“So there I knelt drunk, wet, and stinking from days of travel. My spear was standing outside the door, maybe ten feet away may as well have been in my pops’ homestead for all the good it did there. And he stood over me then. This man who had seen me at my best. One of three people who’d ever really known me. And he laughed.”

I could see him struggle then. The emotion breaking through. I saw it as weakness for a brief moment.

“I think that laugh was the final blow. It broke the man I was. Ended him right there. I looked up into his eyes and I think I knew. I saw in him the capability to do it. In that uniform, I knew he had to have given them something. And still laughing he looked down at me. And kicked me. Right here.” He gestured to his chest.

“I fell to the ground too tired to do a damned thing about it. And he kept laughing. It was a strange thing to be reborn out of another’s callous disregard. But that’s where I changed. Where this shining example of manhood really began.”

He gestured to himself with both hands leaving the rolled leaf in between his teeth.

“I didn’t care if I died there, Quioren would tell me what he did. So I did what I could with what I had and broke his durned nose with my face. I can’t say I felt it, drunk as I was but he did. He screamed and wailed and the others came at me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but there is a grace to fighting while completely smammered on bad village ale, so long as ye don’t care about coming out the other side. So that was my rebirth. Killed three of them before they got a hold of me again. ‘Say it.’ I spat blood and a tooth into Quioren’s face. ‘I did it. You know it. Who else would young Eric have trusted enough to ride out alone with? Should’ve seen him weep and wail as we torched the place. Boy managed to kill two o’ mine before we did him in. But I did it. I ended him. But hell, I hated every minute of it. Of all of this.’ Quioren looked like he was about to fall down, blood trailing in the rain on his face, one eye swollen shut. ‘It didn’t have to be like this brother.’ And I looked up at him then. Right in his eye. And I told him ‘It really didn’t’. The arrows flew then. And some of the refugees came out of the dark. Asher, he led them to me. Quioren escaped into the dark with the woman who cut me. And I passed out. Woke up back in a wagon. Asher watching over me while I sobered up.”

He twisted out the remnant of leaf and put it out on his boot.

“My best friend was the one who did in the young prince. And he did it because of me.”

“You can’t possibly take that on yourself,” I told him, sincere as I knew how.

“I know. Forgive me a bit of melancholy. But today was the day. Quioren and I were going to marry a pair of sisters. They were warriors from the south of Corbach. I wonder what would have come of us if that day had passed as it was meant to.”

He stood and stretched. Groaning.

“Let’s continue on then. Get back to those free folk back there. See if Elowen will give us a damn cake for our wondrous patrolling.”

The pack of wolves continued on their way then. And we gathered our packs and made our way back to the path.

It was only because of my mentor’s training that I didn’t blurt it all out then. Sometimes I wonder if he already knew. It would be a while yet before it was all out in the open. But that day walking back, I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t ever have to scar him again.

 

02. Upon Arrival in Voraniss: By Edward (Helkias) Hanscom

I traveled with the caravan and the Corbachian Refugees with them throughout the realms. I made myself useful to the group and indispensable to Helkias. We would ride together when he took to a wagon, but oftentimes we would patrol the edges of the caravan. I learned long ago how to ingratiate myself with people. To get them to open up to me. To tell me everything I wanted to know. With Helkias it was both easier and nearly impossible. Every time I thought I made some headway into the stubborn dwarf-born’s life he threw up a barricade, shoddily constructed, but enough to slow my progress.

And yet I let him in. It had been well over a decade since I last felt myself. But traveling on those roads, fighting off the occasional bandits or pack of wolves alongside them. I felt more in my element than ever before. My mentor went to great lengths to strip me of self. In the grime and work of those days though I felt it scab over. Someone I left behind long ago began to heal.

Upon taking up residence in Kenkilit in the lands of Voraniss I found my first real opening with Helkias. As the stars rose and the moon was lost in its cycle I found him drinking, short legs dangling over the edges of a broken wall. Humming a tune I didn’t recognize.

“Well don’t ye linger there, girl. Move along or grab some stone,” He slung back his drink and I caught a whiff of what I can only describe as torch oil. He handed me a mug and dropped in a hefty swig.

“It won’t kill ye. Not quick anyway.”

The man who sat beside me was so different from the one I met in the tavern. He seemed lighter. As if some weight had been lifted. I heard tales from some of the other Spears about his recent adventures alongside the elf, the barbarian and the Voranians. Helkias always had a couple days of joy after his adventures in the realms, but this was different. I’d never seen him this way. I threw back the offered drink and handed it back to him.

“What happened out there?” I asked. I learned early on that subtly and deceit weren’t the right course with him. Helk appreciated directness.

He drank another.

“Met a god.”

He offered another.

“I’ve heard a bit of who he is..was…is. Hels I don’t know what to say. Vandor. His names Vandor and what he represents in Voraniss. Telym, it’s exactly the sort of cause I’ve been waitin’ for.”

I drank.

“And standing there, holding a gift from him,” He held something around his neck, but in the moonless dark, I couldn’t see what, “I don’t know. I felt renewed.”

He poured.

“There’s been talk,” I turned to look at him, again, directness, “Some of the refugees say you’re making this place your home. You and Cronin. Some of the other Spears. Are you done with Corbach and the fight back there?”

I could almost see some of the weight fall back on his shoulders. I didn’t mean to. But it was information I needed. At the time.

“Something else happened. The night before we met the god. The Voranians keep as jubilant a fire as I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. They have rituals. I can’t say I understand ‘em as yet. But there’s a power to it. That community.”

He drank.

He poured, handing it back to me. All in silence before continuing.

“They asked us to burn wishes. Send them out into the sky as ash and remnant. But to do so we had to purge ourselves of the darker emotions. So as not to corrupt what we asked of their spirits, gods, whoever. I don’t claim to know it all. What it means. But I’ll tell you this girl.”

What I can only describe as peace came over him then.

I drank.

He looked into the empty mug.

“I wished to find a place then. And doing so I let go of all the hate and pain and terror and disgust that I’ve carried with me from Corbach. The next day we met their god of vengeance and protector of the innocent. This Vandor. I think it might be my place. I made my mark and said oathwords to the Archdruid. I think whoever they are that were listening heard what I asked for and granted it to me.”

“What’s it mean then? Not the big picture. What does it mean for you, Helk?” I was surprised to find I asked out of genuine interest, far beyond information gathering.

He chuckled and shook his head.

“It means that the vengeance I am going to rain down on the heads of the council and that pile of goat excrement Ser Quioren isn’t going to flash and burn. It isn’t going to come quickly. It will be no fiery burning vengeance, not vengeance born of passion and hate. It will be a rising tide of vengeance. It will slowly cover their heads and they will draw their last breaths knowing that it was I, Helkias Gotholias Ryunn, son of Keric and Alis, born of Corbach, Steward of the royal family, Blackraven that opened the floodgates and drowned them.”

The mug was destroyed. Tinder in his hands. He brushed it off and it flew into the darkness. I felt a chill run down my spine that did not correspond to the night, the dark, or a passing wind. Beside me sat a force of nature that would return to Corbach when the time came. And that force of nature laughed then.

“Hels Telym. You’ve got me talkin’ like me pops did preaching hard to the followers of Kantador’s hairy ass.”

I saw then again the lightness from before. He reached into the pack beside him and pulled out another mug.

He poured.

He began a tale from before. From back in Corbach. He spoke at length about the young princes. Prince Eric seemed to be his favorite. The smallest of the boys. But the most tenacious. I would have liked to see the man he grew into, the way Helkias spoke of him. I remembered their bodies. I remembered how Helkias spoke of that day. And it occurred to me. The days had been difficult to track. But it had to be close.

An anniversary of sorts.

We talked at length. Sharing stories of home. Keeping the darkness at bay with laughter.

And we drank.

When magical creatures and their allies unite in defense of their freedom and the forest they love, there is no telling what kinds of shenanigans might ensue.