The world is not kind

But neither is it cruel

It is what we make of it

Another dead end. Haulrin stared at the letters carved into the wall while a sense of hopelessness washed over him. Deep inside a mountain in the frigid northern wastes of the western continent, his pilgrimage was nearly complete, if he could only find the shrine. The writing was set into a flat blank tunnel wall. Of the half dozen tunnels leading from the previous chamber this one had seemed the most promising. Unfortunately he didn’t have time to check all of them, he tried not to think about the mountain above him that could come crashing down at any moment.

Realistically there was no way he would reach his objective. He had studied for years in an attempt to one day be able to navigate the tunnels. His chance had come and he’d taken it. In so doing he has seriously jeopardized his career, possibly started a war, and his life could end at any second for a very wide range of reasons. Not fifty feet away the dust was still clearing from a partial collapse. He took a moment to consider his options and came to the conclusion that coming here had been very, very stupid. 

He removed his hat, wiped the perspiration off of his forehead and from around the edges of his filter mask, then took a deep breath as he pondered Larona’s message on the wall. His hat was a local style with a wide curved brim, and two parallel ridges on top running front to back. His mask was high quality and well worn, with three pivoting lenses over each eye and a top tier air filter. He exhaled, air hissed sharply through the two circular vents that covered his mouth. Suddenly there was movement behind him, Haulrin pushed down a feeling of panic.

The soldiers had found him, he did his best to remain still. They had yet to attack, perhaps they would hear him out, “I’m no threat, I am a scholar.” He said, not sure if they would believe him. He was after all a scholar of sorts. “Are you from Tochim?” He said in the imperial tongue, hoping his voice sounded calmer than he felt.

Silence hung in the air, Haulrin collected his thoughts, “I came to study the shrine, that is if I can ever find it.” There was no reply. “They say these walls were carved by Larona herself, more that seventeen hundred years ago.” The tunnel was cylindrical, flattened along the floor. Every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered with intricate frescoes, save for the mostly blank dead end before him. 

Haulrin slowed his breathing, “Who else but Larona could have done this? According to my research, Larona’s entire life story is contained within this twisting labyrinth. I just came to look, I’ve got no interest in taking anything back.” Haulrin waited a moment, then went on, “I’m here to learn about history, I promise not to interfere with any contemporary politics.” Still no response. 

An ominous rumble echoed through the cramped tunnels. Grit and debris tumbled from the vibrating walls and bounced off his shoulders, dust swirled in the ghostly blue light of Haulrin’s sana lamp. Slowly he turned to face his would be killer, “Just an aftershock,” Haulrin said aloud, once again trying not to think about the tons of rock overhead, “Even so I think it would be best if we got out of here.” He scanned the darkness, hoping to catch some glimpse of the stranger. 

And then he noticed a curious thing, a solitary set of bare footprints. They were small, too small for a typical adult. Their path had crept towards him then turned and scrambled away, as if whoever it was had been startled.  This was no soldier, nor was it some ghoul or other abomination. Could it be? “You’re a survivor, you escaped.” 

Haulrin thought back to his research, he’d spent a small fortune on a language tutor who claimed to know the local tongue. The tutor had explained that their language was unique to the region and completely unchanged since ancient times. A dubious claim, and it was time to test its worth, “I am a friend.” 

From up the dark tunnel came the sound of small bare feet padding away, he lifted his sana lamp and followed. Whoever it was chose a passage that Haulrin knew to be a dead end. Before leaving Soreallia his mentor, Teiza had told him the way through the maze was to follow the history. He raised his lamp to examine the images in the arch before the tunnel. They were of her clash with Maruketh in the fortress city of Zellis. The first recorded battle between Arbiters, they leveled half the city and left hundreds of casualties in their wake.

That would have been an unpleasant memory for Larona. The way forward, Teiza had told him, was to follow the good memories. Haulrin looked down at the footprints dashing along the tunnel. There came an audible thud and Haulrin winced in empathy. “I promise to help you.” Said Haulrin as he walked slowly forward. Soon the figure came into view.

A young man, barely more than a boy by the looks of him. He was thin and appeared anemic. The cuts and bruises across his body made his story all too clear. wrapped across his chest was a sash of some kind, no, a makeshift satchel, a box wrapped in a large piece of cloth then tied at the shoulder. 

Upon seeing Haulrin the panicked youth shouted “Larona!” Around the young mans neck was a pendant, a stone rose, the flower of Larona.

Haulrin reached into his shirt and retrieved a nearly identical pendant, “I too am a follower of Larona. My name is Haulrin, I came to study your shrine, and promise to help you as best I can.” 

The youth eyed Haulrin’s pendant, “You were sent by Larona?”

“It’s by Larona’s will that I’m here.” It occurred to Haulrin that his appearance might be a bit intimidating, he removed his hat and mask, then knelt and loosened the straps on his travel pack. He set the pack gently on the ground and placed his hat and filter mask on top of it. “I have extra clothing if you’d like it.”

Estoca came painfully to his feet, “How far have you traveled in order to come here?”

“Oh several months,” Haulrin opened the pack and retrieved various articles. “Here, take some pants… and a shirt and a coat, might be a bit large… ah here are some boots and a filter mask that will hopefully fit. Oh yes socks…” 

“Why have you come here?” The youth crossed his arms.

“To study the shrine.” In this Haulrin was sincere, “I am a gregor, it comes from the soreallian word gregarious, meaning to live in a group. We are secular order dedicated to the peaceful cohabitation of all. Our primary edict is to respect and foster agency, we achieve this by acting as negotiators, teacher, bankers, anything and everything that helps people work together without violence.  

“I was sent to this continent in order to negotiate with chancellor Tochim, the warlord who presumes to own this region, and many other places to which he has no rightful claim. It was his soldiers who attacked your town. You are from Crethas, is that correct? Anyway I met with this man only briefly, for years the gregars had maintained a peaceful relationship with Tochim, but recently there have been reports of open slaughter, and he’s been refusing to speak with any of our negotiators. I was surprised to get into the same room with him. It didn’t go well. 

After that I resolved to come here. As for why? In part because it’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life. There’s definitely a great deal of scholarly merit, and it would make me the first gregar in a generation to actually complete the full pilgrimage…”

“Wait,” for a moment the young mans eyes had glazed over, when something caught his attention, “You say you’ve dreamed of this?”

“Yes.” Said Haulrin.

“In your sleep, you’ve dreamed of this place, of coming here?”

Haulrin gave the young man a curious look, “As a matter of fact I have.”

The young man nodded and reached out his hand “I am Estoca, I will accept your help. You must take me to Almaran.”

“Almaran…” Once a mystical place overflowing with life and beauty, now overrun by unimaginable horror. Haulrin handed the gear over to Estoca “I will do everything I possibly can to get you there”. Not technically a lie. “Oh and one more thing, this was once my father’s satchel. It should be large enough for that box you’re carrying, might serve better than a length of cloth.”

Estoca starred at the satchel for a moment before accepting. He turned his back to Haulrin as he unwrapped the box and secured it within the satchel. Haulrin understood his desire for secrecy, especially if his suspicions were correct. Once more the tunnels shook, Haulrin pushed the question from his mind, 

Estoca dressed awkwardly, seemingly confused by the shape and function of each article, “How is it you know the way through these tunnels?”

“Because I’ve studied the history.” Haulrin adjusted his travel pack until it was comfortable, “These walls depict Larona’s entire life story. At the caves entrance are the events from just before she began carving. The tunnel that you found me in contains some of Larona’s earliest childhood memories, endless days of drawing and learning to sing with her mother. 

“As for the tunnel we’re in now, these images depict the events leading up to Larona’s flight from her home in the town of Crethas, and the events that precipitated the war of truth and kindness.”

“Tell me of this war.” Said Estoca.

“Um, of course.” Said Haulrin, slightly taken aback by the question. “The war is the reason Larona is as well known as she is. In a sense she was the catalyst, and she’s the reason humanity didn’t completely destroy itself. In the aftermath of the war Larona was instrumental in teaching us to survive the praetus clouds.”

Estoca paused, one pant leg on, and gave Haulrin a curious look, “Praetus clouds?” 

Haulrin thought back to his language lessons, sure that he had chosen the right word. It seemed his tutor had failed him. “The black clouds that cause madness.”

Estoca shook his head, “I have never heard of this.”

“Curious,” Haulrin narrowed his eyes, “It seems this place is more remote than I had realized. Where to begin… In ancient times, on the continent of Almaran there existed a substance called sana. Let me show you something.” Haulrin lifted his sana lamp and opened a tray in the bottom. Inside were a number of small crystal shards. “This is sana as it exists in modern times.” He flicked a switch on the side of the lamp which produced a faint metallic twang. The lamp light faded. With another flick of the switch the crystal shard in the center of the lamp illuminated once more filling the tunnel with a faint blue glow. “The only sana you can find today exists in crystal form, but up until the war of truth and kindness it could be found as a liquid, and useful as crystal sana might be, in its true form it was said to be nothing short of miraculous.”

“Liquid sana appeared in pools all over Almaran, the people there could sing to it, changing it’s properties into just about anything. With the right song it could be ignited and burn hotter than any natural fire, or it could become ice cold. It could heal any ailment, cure any poison, it granted long life to those who drank it and furthermore they never stopped growing. Elders of Almaran were said to nearly ten feet tall, with strength to match. And sana didn’t affect only people, all the flora and fauna of Almaran were said to be enormous. 

“For all the good it could do there were terrible things as well, praetus being the prime example. It’s a poison, which can last anywhere from a few hours to nearly a day. While under its effects a person looses their long term memories, total amnesia. After it wears off the person will remember nothing of what happened, that is unless they find something they created during that time, in which case they will immediately remember everything.” 

Estoca looked at Haulrin with wide eyed horror, “That’s awful.”

“It gets worse,” Haurlin sighed “You’re safe here in the mountains but in the lowlands praetus clouds drift across the landscape, humans and animals that are exposed to it become manic, often violent. It’s why we wear these,” Haulrin tapped his filter mask. Once more the walls around them shook, “We should get going, do you need help with your boots?”

Estoca studied the boots for a moment then slipped them onto his feet one at a time, “Thank you but I am capable. Tell me everything you know of Larona and the war you speak of.” The young man proceeded to tighten the laces and tie them into a strange knot.

Haulrin shrugged, “Alright then, as luck would have it we are in the perfect place to being such a lesson. He shone his lamp onto the wall beside them, highlighting a carving of a tranquil pond in a forest grove. “This is a sana pool just outside old Crethas. Larona and her mother were refugees from the west, a region known as Elmessia. Crethas was located a few days ride from the mountains which separated Elmessian territory from eastern Almaran. Eastern military commanders believed the mountains to be impassable, guarded as they were by a number of impressive fortresses. It was assumed Maruketh would attack from the north, and the easterners were completely caught off guard when Maruketh broke through one of the fortresses and brought the bulk of his forces to bear on central Almaran. On one fateful day his advance scouts descended on Crethas, and the world was changed forever.

***

Chapter 1

***

Her song cut through the thick morning fog that blanketed the forest floor, with a powerful voice and waiving arms she swept away the fade, making way for the enthusiastic sunbeams that joined in her daily trek. Patches of sky poked through the dark green canopy, melting from pink to blue, while a cheerful birdsong accompanied the youthful aria. 

All around bright colored flowers of every variety welcomed her, soft green moss and supple brown vines laid out an exciting and elegant path, up over and under the twisting roots that crawled along the forest floor. A mighty talium bird waved in salute as she passed, she snapped a crisp salute in return. Nearby a friendly basil bug chirped merrily to it’s lover across the way. “Hello little bug,” Larona smiled and breathed deep, enjoying the life and energy that permeated the vibrant foliage.

When her destination approached she bid farewell to the sunbeams as she crawled into a familiar tunnel, scraping along through the dirt on hands and knees. There was actually a path that did not involve crawling, but of course that was much less fun. No doubt she would hear another lecture from her mother about the state of her clothes. She didn’t mind those lectures so much, they weren’t nearly as bad as the dreaded lecture on singing. 

It wasn’t that Larona didn’t enjoy singing, just that it didn’t hold her attention the way it did her mothers. These thoughts were pushed aside as light from the sana pool began drifting through the passage ahead. She emerged then came to her feet and greeted the many flowers that inhabited the enclosure. They each huddled close to the sana, and by the pools edge was a small tree with alternating red green swirls running up the trunk, Larona waved to the tree, “Good morning my friend!” 

Half submerged next to the tree was a large moss covered rock. Moss covered, save for a single bare patch that a certain little girl seemed to view as her personal throne. She sat down imperiously and opened her satchel. She was about to get to work when she decided it would be ok to draw just a few pictures while she warmed her voice. She picked an unfamiliar flower and studied it until she could close her eyes and picture it perfectly in her mind, singing to herself all the while.

She set marking-stone to calsa-bark, the bark was a thin supple material widely used for writing on. She drew a few lines, looked back at the flower then drew a few more, keeping her eye mostly on the subject. When she was satisfied with the piece she reached for the sana gourd from her satchel, then stopped short and proceeded to draw the flower three more times. 

At long last she decided her voice was suitably prepared, she retrieved the sana gourd and opened the cork. Her mother, with a few simple notes, could have called the sana to float up and into the gourd in a matter of moments. Larona knew all the notes and timings, but could not get the sana to listen. Her mother told her it was about more than notes and rhythms, it was about forming a connection with the sana, an emotional bond as she put it. 

Larona leaned in close to the pool and shouted with as much passion as she could muster. There was a ripple in the surface, though she suspected this had more to do with her proximity than her skill. After a few more attempts she dunked the gourd into the pond, once full she gave the thing a stern glare, wiped it off and placed it in her satchel. 

Having done what she could she glided homeward, throwing herself with wild abandon along the forest course. Soon she arrived at the town gates, which were guarded by two elders. An elder was considered anyone over two generations old, one generation being twenty four years. As a person aged, their dependence on sana increased exponentially. They grew taller and stronger, but more vulnerable to starvation with each year. 

“Hello Eoanar and Wellan!” Larona waived excitedly at the guards. The two of them were busy shoeing away a pack of razka, a tree dwelling pest species that had a penchant for stealing and wearing random goods. The colourful scamps fled up the nearest tree and into the bush. Most people hated the razka, of course Larona’s favourite companion was a plush yellow razka doll name Miss Razzy. 

Eonar waved at Larona “Hurry inside little one, your mother needs you.” Eonar was over seven generations old, in less than a generation her need for sana would probably exceed her usefulness. Cruel though it seemed there was little alternative, the sana pools only produced so much in a day. That’s why Larona’s mother was always so insistent about her singing. The more valuable a person was, the more sana they were allowed, and no one was more valuable than a singer. 

“What’s going on?” Larona hurried her pace. The town was surrounded by a huge rockwood wall, it had been built a few years ago and Larona didn’t like it, Crethas had felt colder ever since. The settlement was built on a series of enormous tree stumps, a typical stump had enough space for six to eight houses. The town common was located on a particularly large stump that consisted of a broad open space surrounded by a variety of municipal buildings, a smith, a dreken pen and of course the singers chapel. 

“Your mother is tending to a wounded gregar, he arrived on dreken back not one hour ago.” Eonar motioned to have the gate lifted, an elder on the wall above waived in acknowledgment.  “The singer says she’s done what she could but needs your help for the rest.” The ominous gate began to groan open.

“Thank you! I’ll hurry.” She rushed through the gate and up the stairway that was carved into the side of the town common, once at the top of the stump she could see a large crowd gathered around her mother, and hitched to a nearby fence was a strange dreken. 

Dreken are a species native to Almaran known for their speed and tree climbing ability. They are popular riding mounts, slender creatures with long ears, neck and tail. Their limbs are built for climbing, their paws have strong  digits with sharp claws ideally suited for gripping bark. When healthy they are completely covered in green moss, this one had several grey patches of skin showing, along with many cuts and scrapes. 

“What did he say.” Shouted a woman from the crowd, Larona couldn’t tell who it was, she hurried closer. 

“He hasn’t said anything,” came her mothers voice, “Now all of you please stay calm and go about your business. Her mother was a picture of total control even in the midst of dire chaos. “My daughter will return shortly, with her help the gregar will be healed and we will learn what message he carries.”

“Is it true you know this man?” It was the same woman from a moment ago. Now Larona could see the voice belonged to Leka, her family ran the local smith. Larona had very little interaction with this person though her children were among Larona’s more enthusiastic tormentors. It seemed it would be nice to have a large family. The only family Larona had was her mother.

“He’s…” The singer flushed and stammered, “An old friend.” Immediately the surrounding crowd broke into heated conversation.

Larona did not recall ever seeing her mother loose composure, even a little. A desperate sense of worry filled her stomach. She sped forward, “Mother, I’m here, what’s wrong?”

Upon seeing her daughter the singers features regained their usual serenity, “Hello sweet one. Into the chapel with you, meet me in the healing room.” Larona did as instructed while the singer turned her attention to the townsfolk, “My work requires silence, councillor Standorn please see to that.”

Councillor Standorn did not particularly like taking orders. As chair of the town’s elder council he was effectively the leader of Crethas. But a singer, especially a healer, was well beyond any kind of reproach, “Absolutely your eminence, I will see that the crowd is dispersed. I hope you won’t mind if I stop by a bit later for an update.”

“I will be ready with one, thank you councillor.” The singer parted the bead door of the chapel entrance and stepped inside. The chapel exterior and ceiling were formed by a series of curved wooden boards, angled to block line of sight to the outside while allowing free airflow and light. Thick vines with red berries spun themselves across every part of the boards. To the rear of the chapel nave was a green wooden door to the healing room. Knitted old tapestries draped tastefully along the walls.  

The room was circular and completely sealed off, except for the door and a vent on the roof. Inside, Larona looked anxiously upon the wounded gregar, her hands were freshly washed. The patient lay on a table at the centre of the room. Spaced around the outer wall were a series of shelves and book cases, containing all manner of supplies and reference materials.

“Are you ready for this, sweet one?” Her mother was always so gentle in a crisis. She busied herself laying out the items necessary for the coming procedure. A number of bowls, more than Larona was used to seeing, along with a song book and several towels.

“I’m ready mother.” Larona stepped eagerly beside her mother and held her hand.

The table sat atop a large cistern filled with sana. “Pay close attention to the timing,” she gently tapped her daughters wrists, “And be sure to hold pitch. This is important so I’m going to ask you, what is your role in this?”

Larona rolled her eyes in an exaggerated expression, “The song will progress more quickly with a second voice, allowing for more complex Metamorphosis. Furthermore I must pay close attention to your…” She took a deep, laborious breath, “breathing, which you will indicate to me by tapping.” Larona gave her mother a meaningful glare.

The singer shook her head and motioned for her young pupil to go on.

With an audible sigh Larona continued “If the sound stops for even a short amount of time the crafting could deteriorate beyond salvage. And why am I the only pupil in town? There are lots of kids who would love to be singers, they aaaaalll tell me this.”

“It’s because you’re special.” Her mothers tone was very stern, her voice drew to a whisper, “And because I need to be careful with the songs I know. A person can be very dangerous with even a little knowledge. Tell your friends that if they want to be singers they can apply to the Grand Chapel like everybody else.”

“They’re not my friends,” muttered Larona under her breath. “I’m ready mother, I promise.”

“All right then sweet one let’s begin.” The singer lifted the plate covering the cistern mouth and set it gently to the side. She let out a soft, caressing note and a line of blue sana twirled from the opening into the air above her patient. She tapped her daughters wrist and the girl nodded, holding the note strong and clear. Her mother tapped again and Larona relaxed into the gentle rhythm of the song. 

The sound was not musical, it was something primal, uneven and chaotic. It required many undulating notes, making full used of everything from the lower diaphragm to upper nasal passages. It was a code, a set of instructions for the mystical substance. As the music washed over it the floating sana formed into a sharp blade. The singer plucked the blade from the air and set to work. 

The wound was hideous, and there was a large chunk of metal jammed at least partway into his ribs. The singer pointed to her book, on the page was a picture of the human heart. She gestured to an area just below one of the arteries. She carefully guided Larona through the many meticulous steps involved with extracting the shard, without allowing their charge to bleed out. They used a lot of sana, much more than Larona had ever seen used at one time.

When the grisly task was complete Larona felt the room spin. “Is it ok if I lay down for a bit mother.” She was proud of herself for not succumbing earlier. 

“Not just yet sweet one, there’s something wrong.” The singer went to a bookshelf and retrieved a large tome. She skimmed through it then chose another, then another. They were set beside an even larger stack of books, it was rare for the singer to leave her books out. “Did you notice how much sana we used? It’s some kind of toxin, a poison or infection perhaps. That’s what these are for. ” She gestured to the many bowls laid out, “I still need your help, we have to craft a testing oil, I need to know what this substance is.”

Larona took several deep long breaths, counting in and out to twelve. When she was ready she took her mothers hand and they began. The song was complex but much shorter than the surgery had been. Sana flowed up from the cistern into the air and formed a ball. A small globe split off from the whole, changing colour slightly as they sang. The globe floated down into one of the waiting bowls. They repeated the process until each bowl was full, with what was left floating in the air they sang one more verse then poured it into the wound.

Larona’s mother sang for the potion to come out once more, but it did not. It simply laid in the cavity like stagnant wet-season puddles. A very brief look of concern flashed across the singers face, quickly replaced by one of determination. She rushed to a cupboard and returned with a slender green ladle. She gently retrieved a small amount of the oil from inside the wound and poured it into one of the bowls. the bowls contents immediately turned pitch black. Another spoon into the next bowl produced the exact same result. Again again, the contents of each bowl turned black, “This isn’t right,” the singer was shaking her head, “each bowl should be different, none of them should be black. This is something I’ve never encountered.”

“Will he be alright?” Larona found it difficult to look at their patient.

“Oh we’re not done yet. There’s one more song I’d like to try,” The singer let out a very low note that slowly rose higher, then stopped. She resumed at held the same note, and Larona noticed that the surface of the substance was vibrating, as if a string was being plucked beneath it. Her mother smiled, “Those ripples mean we can vaporize the toxin, we will destroy it without harming any of the surrounding tissue. No need for holding tones, just watch.”

The singer blasted a single, powerful note, and the black substance began to glow, there was a flash so bright Larona had to look away. The very next moment she found herself face flat on a hard surface, not the warm grass carpet of the healing room, but cold stone. It took her just a moment to realize it was raining, and dark out. Her surrounding were lit by a faint blue glow, and she realized she was next to the sana pool, in the grove she visited every morning. Her legs were in terrible pain but she was able to stand easily enough. 

She felt faint almost immediately and nearly collapsed as she leaned into a nearby tree, a black silhouette that was barely visible against the surrounding foliage. When she touched it she recalled it was the small one by the pool, with red and green stripes that swirled up the trunk. “Thank you friend, I just need a moment.”

She began to breath deeply, just as her mother had taught, and tried to take stock of her predicament. She concentrated on that last moment in the healing room, warm and cozy, then finding herself alone in the forest. Larona looked up  and felt rain droplets splashing on her face. She began to pace around the grove to get a view of the stars, but it was too cloudy. Clearly it was now nighttime, and Larona had absolutely no recollection of the preceding hours.  All she could think to do was make her way back to Crethas. Despite the pain in her legs she found she was able to move quickly, seemingly faster than she ever had.     

***

Interlude

***

A dark miasma filled the tunnel ahead, accompanied by a rancid stench, distinct even through their filters, “We’re nearing the surface, this black smoke, this is praetus.” Haulrin stopped and took a moment to check the seal on his and Estoca’s filter masks. “Estoca, this won’t be easy but I have to ask you, did you witness the attack on your town?”

Estoca’s eyes were wide and uncertain, “I did not.”

Haulrin took paused to collect his thoughts, “It’s pretty bad out there, I can’t say if anyone else made it. I was surprised to find you. I’m sorry, maybe you don’t want to hear this.” 

“Go on,” The young man was taking this surprisingly well, “It is better to know.”

“Very well,” Haulrin replied, “The buildings are in ruins, soldiers ransacked everything and razka scavenged what was left. I’m afraid there’s now very little of the town you grew up in. I spied some supply carts with a couple of dreken on the outskirts, they could be our ride out of here. 

“The earthquake began about an hour after I arrived. It caused a massive rockslide that took out the southeast corner of town, the tochim soldiers all fled to their dirigible, a flying ship currently moored about five hundred feet above the town’s centre. I saw my chance and I took it. I must confess running into a mountain tunnel during an earthquake isn’t at all the stupidest thing I’ve done recently. Since we’ve got no way of knowing when they’ll be back we will have to be careful.”

As the two of them entered the next chamber they heard heard footsteps echoing from one of the many passages. Haulrin held up his hand, the pair stopped and listened. 

After a moment they heard a voice, a young woman, “So what do we tell them?”

“We keep our mouths shut, we stayed at our posts the whole time and nothing happened.” The second voice was male.

“But what about the one that escaped?” Asked the woman, “What if they snuck inside while we were away?”

“They’re dead. This is the only exit. They have no clothes, no weapon and no air filter, meaning they have no chance whatsoever.”

“But what if they have it?” The woman sounded hopeful.

Haulrin stole a quick glance at the satchel Estoca carried, then returned his attention to the conversation.

“It’s not in there, we’ve already searched every inch.” His voice was blunt.

“So maybe it’s hidden and the locals were the only ones who knew how to find it.” She offered cheerfully.

“I’ve met a handful of individuals who can withstand interrogation, never an entire town. But let’s say you’re right, let’s say it’s in there. Trust me you want no part of it. Best case scenario they take it and swear us all to secrecy, they could just as easily put a bullet in each of our heads to avoid the risk. Whatever happens before we’re sent home, they will search us, they will question us. It will be a very long and uncomfortable process. If we’ve taken anything, copied or so much as looked at a single page, they will find out.”

“But what if…” Began the woman before a third voice cut her off.

“Would you two shut up about the stupid journal. And where are the others?” This voice sounded like a much older man, gravelly and world weary.

“They’re still aboard ship, sir.” Replied the woman.

“Hrm.” Grunted the third voice, “Don’t they  ever get enough quality time? Anyway no more talking.”

Haulrin led Estoca back down the tunnel until they were safely out of earshot, “I don’t like our options. They mentioned others are coming, which means we can’t afford to wait. It seems we’ll have to fight out way out.”

Estoca’s features grew stern, “We should not kill them.”

Haulrin was impressed, “You say this about the people who razed your town?”

Estoca nodded, “Killing them would only cause more problems for us.”

“Spoken like a true follower of Larona, pragmatism demands empathy, as she was fond of saying. I have another idea, though admittedly it’s not an ideal plan.” Haulrin set it down his pack then crouched beside it and withdrew a metal box. Inside the box were three black spheres, each with a different image painted on the side. “The soreallian word for these is ‘grenade.’ The demonstration I saw was quite impressive.”

Estoca leaned in to examine them, “What do they do?”

“Well this one,” Haulrin pointed to a grenade with a star painted on it, “Should produce a very bright flash followed by a great deal of smoke. I say should, because the person who sold it to me was somewhat… the soreallian word is dubious, which means questionable, not easily trusted.”

With a concerned look Estoca asked, “What if it doesn’t work?”

“Then we use this,” from inside a sturdy case Haulrin produced a plainly crafted rifle, “It may not look like much but it’s aim is true and it’s never once misfired on me.”

“That is also a weapon?” Asked Estoca.

“Beseech the all we won’t need it. Anyway the grenade will be quite loud. When you hear it, run. Hopefully it won’t do too much damage to the tunnel walls…” Haulrin’s took a moment to absorb the intricate carvings surrounding them, he reached out and gently touched a stone bird, then let out a deep breath and stood.

The two prepared themselves and moved forward. Staying just out of sight, Haulrin lit the fuse and threw the explosive down the passage leading towards the tochim soldiers. The black ball plunked along the stone floor as Haulrin and Estoca covered their ears. There came a deafening bang, even covered their ears were left ringing. 

The two ran as fast as they could into the smoke, cries of alarm and confusion came from the soldiers. A dark form stood in Haulrin’s way, he anticipated the attack and ducked, then countered with a palm strike to the figures nose. Another form tried to grab Haulrin about the neck. Haulrin grabbed their hand and snapped the wrist, feeling genuinely sorry for them.

Haulrin saw no sign of Estoca and could only hope the youth had made it clear. The gregar pressed forward, through exterior alcove and into pale grey daylight., Mountain peaks were just barely visible through the haze. There were steps leading down from the tunnels into the town of Crethas. Estoca stood frozen halfway down the stairs, Haulrin couldn’t imagine the youths feelings at that moment. 

“No time, we have to move.” Haulrin had been through many war zones, he knew that soldiers would be converging on their position, “And the All knows what might be watching us.” He grabbed Estoca by the collar and dragged him down the stairs then into a nearby building. The structure had partially collapsed, and provided only minimal cover.From all around the dusty grey rubble there were many excited shouts, the gregar caught someone yelling orders to ‘search the one with the collapsed dome on the south corner.’ The one they were in.

Haulrin retrieved a small mirror from his pocket and used it to scan outside. When he found a clear path the two darted to another building, then another. Each building had been torn apart by soldiers, then picked clean by the scavenging razka. Haulrin could see a number of the winged imp like pests perched high among the ruins, looking down with wolfish grins. They were moss covered like many species from Almaran, though razka appeared in many colours, not just green.  

The gregar and refugee made their way to the town outskirts without drawing further attention. The dreken he had spied earlier were completely ignored, still hitched to a wagon and apparently left for dead. It was not hard to see why, the dark patches of moss on their hide made it all to clear they they were both in incredibly poor health. One of the forlorn creatures couldn’t even stand, but the other looked like it might be healthy enough to ride. 

Estoca watched as Haulrin rummaged through the wagon, “Is this how it was for Larona, when she was forced to flee her home?”

“Rotten beets, should be enough to keep us alive till we reach the next town.” Haulrin hefted a bulky sack, “Sorry, Larona. Yes actually. After finding herself alone in the forest in the middle of the night with no memory of what had happened, she returned to see Crethas completely destroyed.

***

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