Tales From the Fire: The One Between the Winds
The One Between the Winds[edit | edit source]
Left foot, step.
The spider walks on walls and makes no sound.
Right hand, swing.
The spider runs on walls and no one sees.
Left hand, hold. Right foot, slide.
A figure crawls down the face of a mountain cliff without air of rope. Her silhouette is a scurrying insect beneath the pale light of twin moons. Her clothing is wrapped tightly around her body in a series of knots that weave and coalesce in a protruding mound at her back.
Her movements have no sound. Nothing but speed and tension and blood pushing through her ears. Nothing but sweat gathering down the valley of her spine and fragments of rock rubbing against the torn calluses of her hands. The grit of skin scraping off her fingers, mixing a mortar of dust and perspiration.
She descends through clouds as thin as her breath, a blindfold covered over her eyes. She grips the face of the cliff, moving on from each sharp cleft of rock as quickly as she touches it. She senses the sudden cavity from the night before, where a fragment broke off in her hand as she prepared to leap from its secure hold.
Time, spider. Faster, spider.
She holds her eyes closed behind the blindfold. It bears a simple marking of three suns interlocking at the same horizon. Each of her hands has bear fingers to dig into the dimples of stone, and a glove made of finely braided cords covers her palms. Her ears are exposed yet her head is covered in wrappings similar to her body. She pauses to listen for clamor below, but her heartbeat is too loud to hear a sound. Time devours the spider and no one knows it has perished
At last she finds the choice stone, the one that can bear her weight while she unspools the cords from her hands. Cords that run down her arms and circle her abdomen in a tight web. This is her silken thread. This is her line of life.
This is how the spider runs on walls and no one sees.
The choice stone is the anchor and the cord the tether to her only way home, a return up the cliff wall. She lifts the blindfold and her jade eyes spy the prey: a fractured stone outcropping five stories below, the distance severed by a weak cloud that drifts into the cliff’s face.
With a sudden tug she runs down the cliff face, parallel to the earth far below. The knot of rope at her back, which took hours to weave, unspools in mere moments and flies as quickly as her feet can pull it. Run, spider. In a tunnel of speed her thin leather soles let her sense the unmarked path in the absence of light. The cord length is precise, delivering her onto the face of the outcropping and loosing her from the web unspun.
Thaeolyn Greyborn, a leader of a special band of the Elven military, stands atop that jagged, broken boulder. Her eyes roll across the acrid valley below, the stench of it filtering through the wrappings over her face. To the Humans of Thronefast this place is called the Burning Basin, yet to her own people of Faerthale it goes by the name V’ios Daenaad.
Dead Storm Valley.
Despite abutting to an arctic straight, Dead Storm Valley is largely barren of organic life. The vast smoldering expanse could be interchanged with the surface of either Hauna or Lauta, the twin moons that hang peacefully in the night sky. Fissures in the crust of the ground release howling, poisonous vapors that rise and descend in an odorous black symphony. It is said the deeper one treads into the valley, the less of the real world they can recall. The mind of a common mortal will drift into a maze of dreams, deluded into believing a fissure of boiling gas is a long sought after oasis. The bodies of these broken minds do not linger long upon the corrosive crust.
The storms of the valley draw strength from the hot clouds of gas that rise above the surface, which mix with the tides of frigid wind that break in from the coast. For far to the north lies the frostbitten continent of Frozja Nochta, a harsh but beautiful realm that sends its storms across the Bethrale Straight and over the shoulders of the continent of Kingsreach.
The hot spray of the fissures mingle with those wayward winds and from their union come the Dead Storms: tornadic bursts of violent toxicity that roam the valley floor with uncanny awareness to mortal presence. Whole armies have been ripped apart by these vortex titans (most notably a unified Human and Elven force in the year 503 IH). Countless souls believing in vain that mere chance had brought about the collision of natural and mortal forces. And survivors are then forced to meet the Children of the storms.
Yet tonight Thaeolyn saw no cyclones raging across expanse. There was no bitter gale from Frozja Nochta, no cover of cloud as thick as the stone Doors of the Deep. There was nothing but emptiness for the spider to spy upon.
Thaeolyn looked over the Valley once more and saw nothing that moved. She gritted her teeth and glared at the moons, ungrateful for their soft light. She wanted the beams of Hauna and Lauta kept far away, hidden behind layers of clouds. She needed no tranquil cover for her descent into Dead Storm, for she came not to observe this broken landscape. She came to hunt upon it.
Thaeolyen felt the stark clarity of the night sky unnerving, in part because it was so uncommon. It was as if the darkness knew she wanted it to rage so it dispersed with its namesake malevolence. The serenity of the stillness was quite beautiful, and she nearly spit at the ground over it. On nights like this in Faerthale the Adytum of Aellos would have priests and civilians alike gathered at the bow of its towering height. Their eyes like chalices for drinking in the night sky, their feet swinging recklessly over the edge of the temple‘s bow.
But Thaeolyn was not a priest, her garments were made for war, not worship. The night was infidelitous for being serene, she wanted its howl and drear spread across the cliffs and over the valley like a dirty old cloak. She wanted the wind to scream and for her prey to think no one was mad enough to knock on their door in a tempest such as this. Because Thaeolyn was just that mad.
She loosened the knots that held the bundle of gear against her back. Out came a chestplate, thin and intimately fitted to her form, with matching pairs of greaves for her arms and shins, a more suitable pair of boots, and two curved swords. The armor was minimal and made to be fastened with the same wrappings it was carried in. The metal was light in weight and dull in finish, forged to enhance her swiftness and rely on her alacrity to evade direct blows. These pieces of gear Thaeolyn cinched onto her chest and arms, sheathing one sword against the outside of each thigh. She slipped her thin boots inside a pair of thicker leather ones with heavier soles. The shin covering slid on last and she bundled the remaining wrappings in a knot at the end of the dangling cord.
Thaeolyn was ready to enter the Valley. She gripped the wall and hesitated, her throat dry from so many quick, heavy breaths. Just before she started to climb down she heard a voice that slowed her heart and mind.
“Father, why are there no good rogues?”
“I suppose there are some.”
“Mother says there are none.”
She climbed the last few stories down the cliffside, onto the face of Dead Storm Valley. She started to run and the old, crusted earth popped beneath her feet.
“Why do you want to be a rogue, child?”
“I want to punish evil for hurting the good.”
“You want to make evil afraid?”
“Yes. Yes I do.”
The hair on Thaeolyn’s neck was now dry. The hair on her hand was beginning to stand. A shrill gust kicked up dirt and she raised her forearm to shield against it.
“And do you want to help the good find success as well?”
“Yes, of course!”
The gusts forced her to slow her pace. As she did, a shadow stretched across the uneven ground, swift as a hand to rushing to choke the light coming from the moons.
“Can a rogue do both of those things?”
More shadows, these with volume and rotation, snaked toward Thaeolyn and she felt the ground tremble and hiss. The gust that had kicked up into her face became a true wind, then swelled into a gale. It rose and began to twist, picking up more of the dust-laden ground as well as rocks and bits of bone. This debris swirled about Thaeolyn and pelted her arms, head and chest. She found it difficult to see anything and even harder to move forward. A crack of thunder echoed off the cliffs and Thaeolyn braced for a coming storm.
Suddenly, the wind ceased. Thaeolyn lowered her arm and looked around, her off hand finding the stone hilt of her sword. Surrounding her were twenty or more creatures with yellow eyes and twisting, shadow-like skin. Nightmarish was their appearance but ordered was their formation, forming an oblong corridor around Thaeolyn and the path ahead. These were called the Children of the Valley, though nothing of their appearance was childlike.
Their flesh was not tissue. Their bodies had no muscle, no hair, and was instead an unstable, shifting form. Ethereal. Their skin was one of black, inky vapor, an anthropomorphic raiment that was ever swirling. (This was the origination of the name “The Stormclothed”, used chiefly by the Thronefastians, and so called becaus the tempest of their outer layer never rests. The term “stormcloth” has became universal when describing their bodies.)
The limbs of a Child of the Valley could be four, five or six in number, long and oddly bent, possessing long forearms that extended beyond the joint of the elbow. Their fingers were thin, yet the hand would often transform into a blade for cutting, pike for stabbing or club for bludging. Some even mastered a whip-like snare with their appendages. Their legs fell in line with this macabre design, bending with a low knee and capable of extending to great height.
The head was centered around two large, sickly and glowing eyes that drew back along their head. The head that pulled back and pointed from the rear of what ought have been a skull. Nowhere else on Terminus have the beasts been found and only in Dead Storm Valley would their unsettling form seem appropriate and at home. The rounded corridor they formed around Thaeolyn gave her space to react if attacked, but they showed no interest in anything more than being a wall.
Then one stepped out from the head of the ring, and each Child’s face turned toward him in unison. His outline was taller than the already sizable Children, his shoulders unnaturally broad with vapors of twisting clouds emanating like thorns, shifting as if controlled by a wind under his own control. His stormcloth moved in a calm yet heavy pattern, falling into a thick mist that reached across the earth and crackled with small shocks of light. His arms were of length, posed in a manner that suggested far greater intelligence than the obediently silent Children. His head was a rounded spire of the cloth, a volute that might have been more fitting on a priest than a creature such as this. His movements were slow and deliberate, carrying a grace that contrasted with the tempest of his attire. His face was a void save for two yellow eyes that swirled like balls of flame.
This was the Host of the Valley.
“Why have you returned?” the Host asked Thaeolyn, his voice rippling with echoes of itself. Thaeolyn could feel his words through her feet, vibrating bits of rock with haunting amplification. The Host brought his hands together, awaiting a reply.
Thaeolyn brought her feet together to face him. Her posture softened, her breathing did not. She clung to the burning spheres of flame in his face with her own gaze.
“To claim what is mine,” she said.
The Host turned his face away, yellow eyes disappearing entirely. His head began to shift from the featureless, swirling void to that of a pale white face. The stormcloth grew and fell like long, white hair around the cheeks of the new face, extending down to the ground like tranquil waterfalls. Thaeolyn’s throat constricted, but her body betrayed nothing. She knew that face: handsome, Elven. In pain, a pain she shared. The Host was wearing Thaeolyn’s pain as the face of someone she once knew.
“Nothing is ours to own,” the Host spoke through the face, eyes black and empty. “Nothing is ours to give.”
Thaeolyn’s cheeks heated as the creature continued to pace, her feet refusing the order of her hands to fly toward the Host with blades drawn.
The Host of the Valley removed his head as if it were merely a bowl set on a table and held it in one hand. “What have you brought us as purchase?” he asked.
“I told you I have already paid!” Thaeolyn shouted, her outcry rippling across the expanse.
The Host paused for a moment. The face she knew filled with sorrow, though the Host’s silhouette was completely still. The face began to hum a song, the tune of a children’s fable popular in Faerthale. Thaeolyn froze as it reached inside her ear, familiar and almost reassuring. She did not wince or look away as a tear fell from her eye. Yet the Host drew a hand over the face she knew.
“Why have you returned?” The Host repeated his first words to her.
“To claim what is mine,” Thaeolyn replied, evenly.
“Have you brought what we seek?”
Thaeolyn’s rage withdrew behind the coverings over her face. Her eyes darted from the face she knew to the Host that held it and back again.
“No,” she answered. “It does not exist.”
The face she knew was swallowed over in stormcloth and the vacant head returned to the Host’s shoulders. His burning yellow eyes retreated into his head and there returned in their place two spheres, crimson and polished like rare jewels. A light set within them swirled as the sun shining from beneath the water’s surface.
“What have you to tell us about existence, Elf?” He voice deepened, the echoes now smaller. “Your kind did not exist on Aevozul until a millennia ago. You are destitute of knowledge as to how you came.”
Thaeolyn swallowed and her hands embraced the handle of each sword as if they were the rocks she hung on from the cliff.
“Until you find that which does not exist, you are unwelcome here.” After a moment the Host turned away, his swirling figure disappearing into the ring of Children around Thaeolyn like a shadow fading into the darkness behind a setting sun. His final words rose cracked through the clouds.
“On that day shall have your purchase.”
The storm went with him as he departed. Tense, silent moments passed, the air frozen in place save for a veil of mist. Then the ranks of Children broke like wild animals toward her. Yet this was a fight Thaeolyn Greyborn had expected. The months prior of smaller, stealthier incursions had permitted her to observe the Children, their tendencies and patterns. Some she had even given them names according to types of aggression or weaponry. These she studied and committed to memory, training with Elven counterparts to behave as Children do, finding weaknesses and exploiting them with swiftness and cunning.
Alchemically she had treated her blades with compounds of precise composition, testing them first hand as she could. The one she called simply Onus Kiss tore through stormcloth with satisfying ease, like a flesh eating poison might a common mortal. The hum of the blades as they swung through air then into beast then into the air and back into beast was a pleasing melody to her ear, like a bard enjoys the pick of his strings. She played her skill in the shadows, using the darkness against them in cruel poetry.
Soon the dozens of Children were but a few and these retreated, though not out of fear, but as if called back from whence their leader had gone.
Thaeolyn was alone once more, the words of the Host scorched into her mind like a branded hex. She checked her wounds as she traced her steps back to the cliff’s rugged embrace.
The spider grieves and no one sees.
Her ascent to the choice stone was deliberate but still at great speed. The toll of this night was etched into her face, hands and side. As she placed one hand above the other and began to climb she heard those two voices once more.
“Can a rogue do both of those things?”
She tied the end of the cord to her waist and crawled back up the cliff face. Nothing remained of her presence.
“I don’t understand, father.”
“A rogue cannot do do those things, Thaeolyn. But you can. And you will.”