A stray breeze carrying a strong scent of death blew past, and the highborn lord gagged audibly while the battle-hardened Knights and hired-swords scrunched their noses as if death was simply an inconvenience. It was much more powerful than on the fringes of the fields…The village’s main path was simply a snow-covered road with long banks of shoveled snow on both sides leading to two large wooden pole totems carved from the straightest tree trunks.
Six mangled corpses of the village’s rag-tag defense force between them. Smashed, ripped apart and some half eaten, they didn’t appear to have the slightest of chances. Only a couple well-bodied men lay amongst them with the rest scrawny with worn armor that appeared a century too old.
Lord Greyscale was not a man of might. Most government officials were scholars nowadays. With war long pass since the days of his grandfather, there weren’t many ways to gain merit now. He wasn’t a smart man either, well not smart enough to keep his inherited rank of Duke. With the threat of demotion hanging over him like Death’s scythe, he was motivated to lead the subjugation against the trolls.
With the moon, full and bountiful, perched up amongst the stars, the totem seemed ominous. Maybe it was that the souls of the dead hung heavy in the still winter air. Maybe it was the blood that colored the snow below. Lord Greyscale felt that he was going further and further out of his league than ever before. The quiet night only made him raise his guard up further as they stopped before the totem poles.
“We’ll stop here. The horse will only get in the way.” One sell-sword to his right called out grimly. Without questioning the call, everyone dismounted from their horses and left them. They were all trained horses. Unless there was a threat, they’d hold their ground. Greyscale felt he may have been a bit ‘hot-headed’ in demanding to take the lead. Trying to weasel himself out of leading now, he stood by the left totem; pretending to exam it.
One by one, the Adventurers rubbed their left hands across the totem’s midsection, over a carved shield. When the last adventurer slipped by, he called out to the figure. “You there, what was the purpose of that?” He gestured to the spot they rubbed. Turning, he noticed it was a young face and a woman’s voice came out. “Rubbing for protection from the Hearth Keeper.” The woman turned back and followed her comrades into the desolate village.
One by one, even his Knights followed suit and rubbed the totem as they passed. They knew how much of a greenhorn their ward was, so they followed the others. One by one the group went on. With an embarrassed clearing of his throat, he grazed his hand past the spot quickly before jogging after them
He was not a religious man. His family paid homage to the God Odin, Lord of Gods and Justice, but on a superficial level. As for what he knew about the Primordial Hearth Keeper was that she’s considered the most prevalent of all. She helped many weaker primordials on their journeys, assisted the weak, and fought the strong. She was known to be eccentric, but overall kind person. No one knew what happened to her, only that she disappeared from history.
Even though she disappeared, she is believed to live. The primordials were known to have strong magic protecting their dwelling, but in their passing, those magic protections would dissipate. That was the sure sign that one had passed.
And only the Hearth Keeper’s dwellings remained protected to this day.
That was why travelers, vagabonds, and adventurers all paid respects to her. The Meteor Iron statues of her dotted the continent. They provided a fifty-meter circular perimeter. Very few were left by the roadside, places the ancients gathered to rest. When the Theocracy had waged their wags, they made sure to destroy most of them.
Nowadays, they could be mostly found in long forgotten spots that may have been old paths used by the primordials, long since reclaimed by mother nature.
Shaking away his thoughts, he kept pace with the group. No one bothered to question him about his change of heart.
At some point in his thoughts, someone had lit a torch and helped the others light theirs. He was the only one who hadn’t brought out his, but he didn’t want to bother. The team itself had enough light from the lone moon that was perched high amongst the stars. Looking up, he felt a cold chill run up his spine. A perfect circle had been carved out of the storm, unveiling the village from the storm. He looked back and saw the edge of the storm. Like a monster made of mist, it prowled on the edge of the fields – Waiting for whatever hurt it to leave.
The moonlight illuminated the village fair enough, but they felt a little easier with torches in hand.
At this point, they had already passed a few houses and from the carnage left in the trolls’ wake; they knew they were getting closer. They eventually came upon a dead child. “O’ Hearth Keeper… Let this child’s soul rest…” The girl Lord Greyscale had spoken too prayed with a weak voice as she ran her hand over the child’s lifeless bloody head.
“Hopefully the Keeper gives them some solace in that next life…” Another adventurer said, a man dressed in full green tinted armor without any fancy decorations. His face was covered with a roman-styled helm, but his eyes seemed to glean with a mixture of sadness and anger. It was far to say children were considered sacred in their religion. They should be brought up with care and patience. Even bandits who were sincere in their belief of the Keeper treated children, noble or commoner, gently.
Even if they were to be sold.
These were the words from the keeper herself they say. “You do not have to like children, but you must not treat them maliciously.” Granted, the words were fluffed, but only the revered High Priest knew what was actually said. The essence of her words is there though.
“I hope she smites all those trolls” the female adventurer said. “Ole Keeper ain’t gonna kill’em. That’s our job lass.” The leader of the group spoke up. An old man nearing his forties, salt n’ pepper hair with a matching short beard. His green armor loosed slightly ominous in the moon light as he patted his hand on the girl’s shoulder. His words seemed a little ruff, but he said it with conviction. “Lord Greyscale follows the path of Alistair. I should ask keep your ill-gotten faith to yourself.” One of the knights spoke up in a snarl.
The adventurers looked at them with annoyance, but all the same kept their tongues. Patience was key to dealing with nobles and rich clients, but if one did not feel like murdering the lot at least once during the quest – Did you really have a rich client?
“Let’s git’ movin then.” The old man said with a insincere smile as he took the lead. He wanted this subjugation to be over with quickly. The knights were weaker than them, but they hadn’t hesitated to look down on them whenever possible. At the Guild and here. He almost wished they were riding in the storm again.
Further down the road, they found the scene of two dead trolls. Two really dead trolls. Both were gruesomely killed with one having it’s head obliterated and the other having its upper body liberated from the lower. A adventurer, dressed in a thick hooded-robe with leather armor, stepped forward. The man himself seemed scholarly and held a worn, but well cared for white-wood staff topped with a rigid ruby-colored crystal.
He stepped over to the headless troll. After a few minutes, he stepped over to the other troll who’d been halved. He eventually waved over his party’s leader. “Something wrong Atkins?” The leader asked when he was crouched next to the mage. He was able to peer under his hood, seeing the green leathery skin of an Orc. One of the few races of green-skins that held sentience, even rarer an orc mage. Being that orcs were considered fierce warriors and frowned upon the scholarly arts.
“Mhm, Look here.” He pointed at the troll’s chest with a gloved hand. Where it’s heart should have been, was a cavity. It’s heart missing and small bloody finger smears. “Also here.” All the teeth from its mouth was taken along with its eyes and ears. The ears or teeth could be used for proof of subjugation, but only it’s teeth had other uses. It’s teeth, eyes, and heart could be used in medicine as well.
With a short glance, he was able to see what Atkins wanted him to see and felt a mix of relief and concern. This meant someone else had been here. Adventurers had strange bonds. They were like a large patchwork family but out in the world, bonds could easily be severed when it came to protecting their bounties.
“What do you want to do?” Atkins asked, slight disinterest in the answer, as if just asking to confirm something he already knew. His interest laid in the trolls. His voice lacking the usual deep and rough tone orcs often had. A sign he was a city-orc, not a tribal one.
“Well… We head on. Lordling payin’ us to deal with the issue, not exactly to kill trolls.” The man sighed as he stepped up. When he turned, he found Lord Greyscale a few feet away, trying to navigate awkwardly over fallen beams and broken furniture. “Lord Greyscale.” The man asked. “Mr. Donajik, why are these trolls dead?” Lord Greyscale’s question was loaded with other unsaid questions. Zarif Donajik, a A-Ranked Adventurer that lead a A-Ranked party could understand that much.
But he wasn’t going to humor him right now.
“Because someone had killed them, Lord Greyscale.” He said blunted, his old raspy voice dancing with sarcasm. Lord Greyscale almost tripped at the sound. His face turned slightly read with anger. He may have been a sheltered noble trying to keep his rank of duke, but he wasn’t stupid.
“I mean-” Zarif cut him off. “I know what you meant.” Without giving him another minute, he stepped past him. Atkins in tow. The knights wanted to say something in defense of their lord, yet they couldn’t find the words. It was obvious the hired-swords were still looking into it and two bodies wasn’t enough to give a concrete guess. So they kept to themselves.
“Can you at least tell me how long them have been dead?” Greyscale asked out, almost in a hiss. It was obvious he was fighting to keep his composure. “Maximum… Forty minutes.” Atkins said softly. He wasn’t as brash as his leader, giving face to the noble. With a huff, the answer seemed to cool the situation before they moved on
Only ten minutes later, Zarif halted the group with a warning from the girl. “What’s wrong Hana?” the only girl, dressed in thick grey hooded-cloak had her arm up; a signal to halt.
“There’s dead trolls up ahead… and I see a white figure next to them moving.” Hana was the scout of the group, being the most agile of them. Definitely not having to do with how her eye sight was the best as well.
Straining his eyes, he could also see the figure now. Being almost thirty meters ahead, he was more focused on the buildings that lined either side of the road. Hana was the only one keeping a watch on the road ahead. Now he could see a snow white figure, with blood stains working on a few dead trolls up ahead in the road.
“Proceed with caution…” He passed his order down the line. “Why? if someone is there, they should announce themselves to us!” One of the knights piped up loudly. Since the howling winds of the blizzard had been stilled around the village, his voice carried over to the figure. The white figure stopped at the sound of the man’s voice before it turned to look at them.
Even from this distance, they could see two orbs of glowing gold, like distance stars. Shadowed under a snow white hood and above a black face cloth. For a moment, the group was stunned before the figure turned back to continue their work. “I-Its just a person. Keep on g-g-going…” The knight said with less vigor now. Those golden eyes chilled his soul.
Zarif took it another way. “Looks like we annoyed them…” he thought.
“Come on, lets go greet them since you already alerted them.” Atkins said with a shrug.
The group moved on, the snow crunching beneath their feet helped to ease the knights’ uneasy hearts. Unlike them, the adventurer party was calm. Those eyes didn’t belong to any race they knew, but seeing as whomever it was didn’t outright attack them… There should be room for some friendly greetings.
Hanna took the front, being the most social of the bunch. “Hello there.” She stepped close to the crouching figure, draped in a snow white, blood splattered cloak. She walked off to their left and made sure she kept a polite distance of three meters from them. She watched as the figure glanced at her with their glowing eyes before cleaning their bloodied hands with a pile of snow.
“Hi.” A sweet girls voice briefly greeted her as the figure stood up and stuck out a small hand towards her. To Hanna’s surprise, the figure – or rather, girl – was nearly as short as she was!
Seeing that she stuck her hand out for a handshake. She stepped forward and shook her hand, getting an up close view of those beautiful amber-cat eyes. Hanna sucked in air through her mouth in shock at their beauty. Like too seas of lucid calm gold. For a moment, she just kept shaking the girl’s hand; lost in those eyes. “You can let go now…” Clearing her throat, Hanna realized what happened pulled her hand away quickly.
“May I ask your name, miss?” Hanna asked as her cheeks, red from the cold, became redder from embarrassment. By now, seeing the friendly response from the figure, the whole group came up, but made sure not to encircle the girl. “It’s only polite that the one asking, gives theirs first, or is that not a thing now?” The words, if taken by themselves, could be see as snubbing the girl.
But Hanna sensed the sincerity in the tone, however. Their client did not. “How rude, the -” Zarif silenced the knight that spoke up with a glance. He noticed that it was the same knight as before. “Lord Greyscale, please keep your underling in check. Some people are not as tolerable as us…” He looked back to the figure, noticing how small they were. Yet this pint sized person sent up all his red-flags. ‘This person is not the be trifled with!’ he thought.
Hanna stepped in front of the figure’s sight, blocking her of the knights. “Please excuse them. My name is Hanna ElderLeaf. ” She smiled awkwardly, unsure how to deal with these rude knights. Fortunately for her, the other didn’t bother. “Name’s Avery Bailey.” She nodded and took off her hood. Revealing a head of snow white hair that cascaded down her shoulders before she combed it back, causing them men to real in amazement.