Mortal Judgement: Episode 2
by Ian Taylor & Jessie Wright
Selena was aware that four guards were watching her. Leydian guards. High in the trees, likely armed, and watching the main trail into Agrodor.
Despite the darkness, she knew there were four. She could smell them. The cured leather of their clothes gave them away, each with a different level of pungency to their sweat.
Selena had been sitting against a large rock for some time. Agrodor was only a short walk away, but something was preventing her from completing the two-day journey to the Arkmonian capital.
“May I approach?”
Selena turned her head towards the voice. “Of course. I heard you drop from the tree.”
“…Oh,” said the guard.
“I did not mean the insult,” said Selena. “I can just… do that now.” She was intentionally vague. Even though these guards were her kin, Selena wasn’t sure how privy she wanted strangers to be regarding her newfound abilities. Perhaps the less said, the better. Safer. A predator would not give away a tactical advantage. Not unless they wanted to…play.
“I am Captain Ornetta,” said the guard. “We have met before.” Ornetta was dressed as a regular Leydian guard. These guards were the first line of defense in any situation, and whatever armor they wore was leather, so as to not interfere with their acrobatic abilities. Selena noted Ornetta’s deviations from the standard uniform. From the way her dagger belt was slung over her shoulder instead of her hip, to her slightly mismatched boots, to her exposed neck, lightly tanned and unexpectedly elegant.
Selena swallowed. Had they met? Selena was sure she would have remembered.
“Of course,” said Selena. “I remember you.” It was a polite lie, but Selena did not want to insult this Leydian guard twice in one night.
“Why do you hesitate?” asked Ornetta. “The Council of Besellan awaits your guidance. By the movement of the stars, the skies have been dark for two days. And there are…unnatural things in the forest. The eyes of Aeona are no longer watching.”
Selena sighed. “Look at the city, Ornetta. So many fires.” The interior of Agrodor was visible from the road. At this time of night, many of the huts were lit up from within, and there were several bonfires dotted around outside, for protection and the good of the public.
“I don’t understand.”
Selena snorted. “I’m not sure I do either. I used to love the sight of the city at night. It looked warm. Safe. Now it looks hostile. I don’t know what changed.”
“The city hasn’t changed,” said Ornetta. She turned to Selena, and eyed her curiously. “Perhaps you did.”
“You may be right,” Selena begrudgingly admitted, feeling uncomfortably warm under Ornetta’s gaze. She had changed, after all, though not in the way the Captain was probably thinking. Still, something was wrong with the forest. Perhaps Eucos itself.
“But before you leave the city, the council must speak with you.” Ornetta gestured towards Agrodor. “Would you like an escort?”
“I don’t need an escort,” said Selena. After a brief pause, she added, “But I could use a friend.”
Ornetta nodded, a half-smile tugging at her lips. Together, they started towards the city.
The Council of Besellan met in the Heart of Agrodor. Nothing more than a simple sunken pit carved into the stone. The city appeared to be built around this place, with circles of habitation and industry radiating outward like the rings of a tree.
Right now, the three council members stood in their respective spots.
Artisan Tethin was a grouchy old fart, and often tried to take control of council meetings. He was a wonderful artist, but a lousy person.
General Orythia was also a grouchy old fart, but a well-respected military commander and much friendlier than Tethin, so nobody seemed to notice her more surlier tendencies. They certainly didn’t bother Selena.
Gatherer Hali was a very nice farmer who also had some experience mining. She was the perfect person to be in charge of agriculture and industry.
They all looked at the Champion of Nature while she gave her report.
“Prepare for war,” was the report.
Orythia usually appreciated a concise communiqué. Except for now. “What marches?” asked the general, her voice crackling with concern.
“The Anubian army marches on Olympian cities close to their border. They may also march on Parthon. There are also rumors that Neferu is raising the dead. However, we are concerned with the Valknir. They will move past Olympian lands, which will either bring them here or through Ronel.”
“It will take them a while to gather an army,” said Hali.
“We have time,” said Selena. “Though not much.”
“The Valknir are no longer several splintered tribes, remember,” Orythia said to Hali. “What they lack in discipline, they make up for in zeal.” She turned her flinty gaze to Selena. “Will you be commanding our defense forces?”
“I don’t intend to remain here,” said Selena. “I have taken the Barksworn Oath.”
“You abandon us in our time of need?” asked Tethin. Selena could hear his teeth grinding. Like most his age, Tethin had an unhealthy reverence for tradition, and the Barksworn Oath was one of the oldest. Tethin was forced to respect it, even at this most inconvenient time.
“She does not abandon us,” General Orythia shook her head. “Selena does not take the oath lightly. The Champion of Nature must champion nature. She has given us the information we need. Our army will be ready.”
“My gatherers will also be ready,” said Hali. “I will add more shifts to the mines and fire up the forges.” She motioned to Selena. When will you leave?”
“Now,” said Selena. “But first…” she turned to the general. “Will you release Captain Ornetta to my supervision?”
General Orythia frowned. “A reasonable request, though unusual for someone to leave on the Barksworn Quest with a companion.”
“Not now,” said Selena. “When Captain Ornetta requests it.”
The general nodded her assent. “As you wish, Selena of the Arkmonian Guard.”
Selena smiled and bowed. While it wasn’t strictly true any more, she never got tired of hearing those words. It was General Orythia’s way of letting her know she always had a place in the Guard.
Captain Ornetta approached Selena as the Champion left the pit. “I have many questions.”
“I like that about you,” said Selena.
“You barely know me.”
“I like what I’ve seen so far.” Selena smiled and held out a hand. “Walk with me to the edge of the forest and I’ll explain.”
Ornetta took the proffered hand that fit so neatly with her own, and did as commanded. As they began to walk, she indicated the small pouch on Selena’s belt. “Is that all you are taking?”
Selena shrugged. “It’s all I need. The forest will provide.”
Ornetta shook her head and sighed. “What do I do now? After I’m done escorting you around, I mean.
“Serve the guard,” said Selena. “Until you request leave to join me.”
The captain looked down at their entangled hands. “This will sound rude, but… why would I do that?”
“You’ll know,” said Selena. “When the time comes, you’ll be sure of it. When that happens, come and find me.
“Where will you be?”
Selena chuckled. “No idea.”
“Great. What kind of sign will I look for?”
“You will hear my words on the wind,” said Selena, smiling cryptically as Ornetta rolled her eyes. As they approached the entrance to the forest, Selena continued. “With your permission, I leave you with this gift.”
In one fluid motion, Selena stopped walking and twirled Ornetta around to face her, placing her free hand on the back of Ornetta’s neck. She leaned in and paused, briefly, but Ornetta did not pull away as Selena’s lips brushed lightly against her own. The kiss was quick and feather soft, but held the promise of infinite potential. This unexpected tenderness sent a radiant warmth through Ornetta, spreading from her lips and coursing throughout her entire body.
Ornetta smiled. Probably too much. A trained guard should not be so easily disarmed. “Why?” she whispered.
“I hear a voice,” said Selena. “From the darkness of my mind. In order to hear it more clearly, I may need to go far from this realm. If I do, I want a reason to return.
“Oh. Is that what that was all about?”
Selena smiled. She gave Ornetta’s hand a gentle squeeze before releasing it. “I gave you a portion of my power. To hear my voice on the wind, and for me to hear yours. The rest we can figure out later.
“You’re the Champion of Nature,” said Ornetta. “What could you need me for?”
“Whatever it is, it’ll be natural,” replied Selena. She lightly but firmly clapped a hand on Ornetta’s shoulder. “This is where we part company, Captain.”
Ornetta chewed her lower lip. “I… I wish I had your confidence in me.”
“I wish that too,” said Selena. “Fortunately I have enough confidence in you for both of us.” She winked. “Safe journey, Ornetta.”
“Safe journey,” replied Ornetta, watching apprehensively as Selena entered the shadowy forest and vanished from sight.
The Barksworn Oath was the oldest and most sacred law in Arkmonia. Anybody could take the oath regardless of experience, age, or social standing. One must simply pledge their service to the forests of Arkmon until they feel that they have fulfilled their purpose. You must leave the city or village at sundown, and return when you return.
Many people take the Barksworn Oath each season. The reasons are usually personal. Some wish to find a purpose. Some wish to increase their skills in hunting and survival. Others merely wish to get away from other people.
Whatever the reason, the only requirement of the Barksworn Oath is to serve Vercos, the Untouched Realm. It is up to the individual to decide how best they can do that.
Selena no longer enjoyed the city, but her reasons for taking the oath went beyond that. Since Aeona had been chained, Selena hadn’t felt right. It was troubling. Much of her youth was a quest to be comfortable with herself, and she had completed that quest.
So why did she no longer feel like herself.
She looked away from the crude campfire. Such thoughts were intrusive, and self-doubt was the last thing Selena needed right now. There was a whisper in the darkness, and she somehow knew it would be an answer to a question yet to be asked.
Captain Ornetta rejoined the Leydian Guard after Selena departed. She had been assigned to the final-year trainees in order to accelerate their training for the potential defense of Agrodor. Presumably, Orythia assigned her this duty; if Ornetta needed to leave on short notice, her absence would be least disruptive here.
Ornetta didn’t usually mind trainees, but in the three days since Selena left, she had been asked dozens of variations of the same question: Why did Selena choose her?
It’s not like she was particularly strong, or talented. Ornetta was always diligent in her service, yes, but she did not excel in any particular area. Her first season out of training was spent in the Rethian chapter as a collector of druidic herbs, but she found that she rather enjoyed defending herself from the hungry forest animals that stalked her as she gathered, and her hands felt better holding a bow than a sickle. Even then, she was still just an okay shot. Nothing special. So why was she chosen? What had Selena seen in her that made her do… that?
Ornetta absentmindedly touched her lips at the memory, and smiled. With a start, she reminded herself where she was, and snapped out of it before any trainees could notice the hint of blush that had begun to creep over her features.
Whatever the answer, Ornetta hoped she would find it soon. The wait was maddening.
This perpetual darkness, whatever it was, brought out the stars wonderfully. Selena was able to track her position and also gauge reasonably well that she left Agrodor six days ago.
However the lack of heat from the sun had started to take its toll. While she could occasionally forego the heat of a campfire if the nights were warm, these days there was a definite chill.
Selena wondered what else might be wrong. Ornetta talked of unnatural things in the forest, and Selena had seen a few for herself. A spectral wolf. A four-winged eagle. A large cat that seemed to be made of shadow. Nothing felt right.
Aeona’s gift to her had resulted in heightened senses, but she suspected that she also inherited some of the Nature Goddess’ more primal abilities. The animals and trees were speaking to her, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. All she got was the impression of chaos and confusion. Selena didn’t understand because the forest didn’t understand.
However the voice she heard sometimes…that was different. It was definitely her language, but it was unintelligible. Cut short. Like someone shouting from behind a waterfall.
It was at the end of the sixth day when Selena saw the farmhouse, and she froze. Was she lost? Did the Champion of Nature somehow circle back to a more populated part of the Arkmonian forest?
No. Impossible. She went by the stars.
And yet, equally impossible, was the warm glow of a hearth fire clearly coming from a tiny cottage at the edge of a vast tilled field that bordered an apple orchard.
This deep in the forest though? It was certainly possible that a Barksworn made it this far and decided to stay, but even the most successful small farms needed to be able to sell their crops, or buy other supplies. There was no road or path going out that she could see.
Selena frowned, and walked towards the impossible farm.
The farmhouse door was closed, but Selena peered through the window. Beside a roaring fire she could see a figure, but couldn’t tell whether or not they were sleeping. Seeing no immediate danger, Selena knocked four times.
“Come in,” said a female voice. Selena did so, and was hit with a wave of very welcome heat from the fire.
“I am Selena,” said Selena, not knowing what else to say.
“You’ve traveled far,” said the voice. “But I’m afraid you are being stalked by a most deadly predator.
The hairs on Selena’s neck stood up. She smelled… something. The Champion spun around to see what was behind her, and had started to draw her bow when she felt an agonizing pain in her ankle.
“Kentauri claims another victim,” said the voice with a warm chuckle.
Selena jumped back and laughed as the furry paw took another swipe from under the chair. Even a Champion of Nature possessing god-like powers is at the mercy of a house cat in its native territory.
“I am Dalia,” said the woman attached to the voice. She had stood up to extend a welcoming hand to Selena. “Please, share my fire. Are you Barksworn?
Selena propped up her bow against the wall and took the proffered seat Dalia indicated. “Yes, you could say that.”
“It’s odd to find even a Barksworn out this far,” said Dalia. “I suppose I should say another one. I took the Oath myself, many seasons ago.”
The Champion studied her new companion. Dalia didn’t look to be much older than Selena, but her warm brown eyes suggested the wisdom of multiple generations. Her limbs were well-toned and muscular, presumably from the effort of maintaining a farm in the middle of a vast, dense forest. “Do you live here alone?”
“Yes,” said Dalia. “I do now. My husband passed away.”
“You took the Barksworn Oath with your husband?
Dalia laughed. “No, nothing like that. I suppose the story is an unusual one. There I was, sitting in a tree with my bow drawn, hoping to score a wild boar for my supper, when a young man wandered into my sights. He had taken the Oath himself, but frankly he had no business being in the forest alone. I chose to follow him for what turned out to be days. He had no idea where he was going. He had no clue I was even following him, but I was intrigued nevertheless. I even protected him from unseen predators.”
“He came to a clearing, where two panthers had managed to trap him. They both leaped, claws extended. I shot one, but the other had started to maul him and they were rolling around in the dirt. I ran over and managed to get a clear shot to kill the other one. He was bloodied. Deep cut on his leg and another on his neck, but he was very happy to see me.”
“I can imagine!”
“His name was Basilio. He wasn’t able to move, so I built a crude shelter above him, and stayed to care for his wounds. Over time, I fell in love with his charm, and I didn’t bother leaving once he was healed.” Dalia smiled. “Over time, we rebuilt the shelter bigger and better, together, and decided that we were married.”
Selena smiled back. Most people in the city had stories, but this one was utterly unique and equally charming. “How did he die?” she asked, in a way that spoke loudly about her complete lack of social skills. Nature, as it turns out, does not value discretion.
Dalia gave a gentle laugh. She could do that, now, but it had taken a long time for grief to stop overwhelming her whenever a memory of Basilio popped into her head. “He wanted to let me sleep,” she said. “We had spent the entire day harvesting crops, and he went out to grab the tools that we had left outside. Basilio saw a bear, and decided to handle it himself. I suppose he thought he could put the hunting lessons I’d given him to good use,” her voice cracked. “I think he wanted me to be proud of him in a way he thought I wasn’t.
The story ended there. Selena bowed her head. “I’m sorry. The way you speak of him, he sounded like a good husband.”
Dalia nodded. “He didn’t think he was, but I don’t give my heart to just any idiot. This one… was a very special idiot.”
Selena couldn’t stop herself from laughing. She felt horrible until she saw Dalia smiling at her.
“It’s okay, Selena,” said Dalia. “For the most part, the sorrow is gone. Now only the happy memories remain.”
“Why did you stay?” asked Selena. “It can’t have been easy. The loneliness must be crippling after all these seasons.”
“I have Kentauri,” said Dalia. “And I have another one around here somewhere. His name is Antemion.”
Selena froze. “Antemion?” she croaked.
“Yes?” said Dalia, unsure of how to respond to her new friend’s sudden change in demeanor.
“Where did you hear that name?
Dalia frowned. “Basilio came up with it,” she said. “But I knew I had heard it before.”
“Where?” said Selena. “Do you remember? It’s important!”
“No. Why is it important?”
Selena looked stricken. “Antemion was a mage who became the Demigod of Magic five hundred years ago. His magic destroyed the city of Logophon, and he died. At least, that’s what I was told.”
“Why are you telling me this?
Selena stood up. “Because for the past eight days, I’ve heard his voice whispering to me. I just didn’t know that until I heard his name just now. And I think he’s been whispering to you and Basilio for a lot longer.”
“Antemion,” repeated Dalia. “I don’t remember where I heard that name. Are you sure?”
Selena was already at the door. She ran into the orchard, her eyes easily adjusting to the oppressive darkness of the night.. There was an earthy electricity that smelled quite strong here. Perhaps she could sense it in other ways, too. Palms open, fingers fanned out, Selena tried to feel the air for what she suspected was there.
“Did you find something?” asked Dalia, who had found a lantern and followed Selena into the orchard.
Selena turned sideways and spread her arms along an invisible line. “Leydia,” she said. “A limb from the Tree of the World. It extends this way. I think it goes under your house.”
“The Tree of the World? That’s a tale of the Fae! They tell me stories like that when I catch them stealing my apples.”
“It’s real,” said Selena. “We must be close to Vercos.
Vercos was the Untouched realm. Aeona’s realm. An infinite forest that bordered Arkmon. This is where the Tree of the World was supposed to be. Located entirely underground, the Tree’s branches reach upward and out to grant the blessing of nature to the forests of Eucos. The druids called them Lines of Leydia, or ley lines. Most people didn’t believe in them, but Selena could confidently draw the path of this one in the dirt. She was drawn to it as though being swept by a river.
“Aeona lied to me,” said Selena. “She told me that Antemion was dead. She told the story like she was there.”
“Why would she lie?” asked Dalia.
“Why indeed?” Selena paced along the path of the ley line. “The gods were chained. Aeona agreed to this, and things have been wrong ever since.”
“Perhaps Aeona had a plan?”
Selena shook her head. “No plan can be worth all this…unnatural change. I’m going to stop it.”
Dalia frowned. “You’re going against the will of the gods?”
“Perhaps,” replied Selena. “Depends on the gods.”
“What will you do?”
Selena smiled. “I’m going to cut the limb,” she said. As soon as the words left her mouth, a soundless explosion of blue light appeared behind her. Selena whirled around, an arrow already nocked and aimed at the vague shape within.
“You can’t stop me!” yelled Selena.
Pallas stepped forward.
“I have to. If you cut that limb, you will tear Eucos away from the Nine Realms!”
“Exactly!” said Selena huffed impatiently as she released her arrow… and sent it sailing straight towards Pallas’ head.
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 3: Children of Parthon.