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The many roads of Evenfall stretch far and wide from one side of the continent to the other, and walked by many people from different walks of life. Who are these people? What do they do? Only time will tell.
The long and winding roads of Evenfall stretched across the land like the branches on an old tree, spreading out in every which direction, and these roads are travelled by hundreds every day, like as mercenaries, entertainers, merchants, or even just those that spend their life roaming from place to place, seeing the world in all its splendor, people such as the majority of the Av’rae nomads. Though they may be few in numbers, its not uncommon to see a handful moving between the towns, plying their wares or providing entertainment for gold.In fact, The Av’rae circus is world renowned for such events!
However, some are just traders, not unlike the band lead by Ahnya’Brehyiik, a brave caravan leader who has spent the last few days crossing into Maldek with her merry crew. Their cart had been emptied slowly over the course of their journey as Tahl’Nanook, the handsome trader of the group, had sold his wares for a nice little sum, but the remainder of the goods were reserved for the Maldek markets, a place they were almost guaranteed to make good money. At least, that’s what they had been told.
Walking just ahead of the group, Ahnya keeps an eager watch, hand on her halberd, and the other hidden under her beautiful blue poncho that complimented her light blue skin. Her bright green eyes peer out from under her traditional Av’ hood, half watching for dangers, and half day dreaming about what she had planned to spend her portion of the money on. Even between the five of them, she is still guaranteed a hefty sum. Perhaps she’d squander it at the ale house? Pay for some upgrades to her weapons and armour? Or perhaps she’d just squirrel it away.
She looks back for a moment, thinking about the others, her friends. Al’Kahn, the group’s enforcer, and Teh’ranyaa, the hunter, always spoke of saving their gold and getting a nice vardo, then perhaps going solo. She couldn’t blame the couple, knowing they intended to start a family eventually, but it did mean she’d need to find new muscle AND someone as accurate with a crossbow as Teh, at the same time. That could be a problem, but not one for now.
Then there’s Tahl, who sat at the front of the cart, his hands firmly gripping the reigns of the group’s beast of burden, a massive, almost porcupine-looking creature. His pink skin seemed almost pale as the light filtered through the trees above, which only made his handsome features a little more defined. She knew he’d end up spending a good portion of his share at the local brothel before coming to his senses and upgrading his cart, but really its his gold to spend as he pleases. Ahnya is not one to judge!
Finally, her good friend Aleh’Moors, a portly fellow, but not one to be underestimated. Though a little rotund, he could beat anyone, even Kahn, in an arm wrestling contest, but his strength is often put into more creative uses as the group’s cook. They wouldn’t have made it this far without his cooking and cheery demeanor boosting their morale of an evening, and there was even once or twice when his skills with his huge war hammer saved their lives, something none of the group is eager to forget.
Ahnya smiles as she looks back to the road, hearing the idle chit chat of the team behind her, and considering how far they’d come. It had been a few years since she’d started her little guide gig with Aleh, then a couple more before they’d hired Kahn and Ranyaa (and even shorter before the pair were an item, then soon married.) Tahl may have been the newest edition, of only a year or so, but his expertise and need for an experienced escort had served them very well in the short time they’d all known him. It certainly helped that they had become his escorts of choice!
Still, they had a little further to go along the long and winding roads, and even though they were getting closer to the next town, they shouldn’t lower their guard. They’d had run-ins with bandits in the past, and so far they’d gotten lucky, but one slip and who knows what would happen. Ahnya pricks up her slightly pointed ears and listens carefully to the bushlands around her, hearing the birds and wind in the leaves… quite refreshing really.
A few moments later, however, an eery silence falls over the treeline as the birds, who had been chirping away happily, suddenly fall silent. The only thing she could hear is the wind and the slight jingle of her traditional Av’rae jewellery that hung mostly inside her hood. She raises a hand, ordering the caravan to stop. Hopefully it’d be nothing, but when the birds stop? Something’s amiss…
“Hold…” She calls back, brandishing her halberd in both hands, revealing a set of rings on her previously hidden hand. “Listen…”
Whenever the leader tells them to stop, that’s when the group knows something up. One by one, each brandishes their weapon, all joyful chatter ceased, and each listening intently. Al’Kahn stands with his battleaxe ready, and on the other side, Aleh holds his hammer close, moustache twitching above his thick beard. Ranyaa climbs atop the cart with her crossbow, standing behind Tahl with his sword and shield. Each of the group takes up a position with practiced ease, as if they’d had to do this before.
“Whoever is out there…” Ahnya begins as she steps back towards her beast and reaches out to grab his buckle. “I can smell you.”
Indeed, it would be no huge feat for Ahnya to smell whatever was coming for them. It didn't take a bloodhound to pick up on the overwhelming stench of old blood and unwashed flesh, like a filthy hobo that had just wandered through a slaughterhouse. As the group waited, muscles tense and weapons drawn, they would hear a crashing and rustling from the woods. Something was approaching, making no attempt to conceal its presence as it shambled through the trees. From the sound of things, it wasn't especially large, perhaps the size of a deer. Certainly not a bear, but far too noisy to be a raccoon. At the sound of Ahnya's voice, it stopped, the forest going silent once more. A moment later, the rustling picked up again as it began charging through the trees, smashing through branches and bushes as it rushed towards the caravan.
The thing that burst out of the woods was perhaps once a man, but could now be hardly considered human. Its eyes were gone, the bloody streaks on its face and scratch marks around the sockets suggesting that it had clawed them out itself. Its mouth gaped open, far wider than any human mouth ought to be, as though the cheeks had been slashed ear to ear. The inside of its gaping maw was filled with long, jagged teeth, far more than any human should have. Its clothes were those of a common laborer, but were torn to shreds and caked with dried blood. Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, were the thing's hands. Dozens of fingers sprouted from each hand, twisting and writhing as the beast ran towards them. As the creature charged, the caravan would hear more rustling from the woods all around them, the same frenzied shambling now coming from all directions. This man or thing or whatever it was hadn't come alone.
The Av’ tugs on the buckle that held the cart in place behind the porcupine-like beast, setting it free from its burden and just in time. The creature had become agitated by the increasingly disgusting, festering stink that had begun wafting from the woods, and once freed it bristles its long, javelin-like spines, ready for anything. The creature had been with Tahl for years, making it an obedient creature, but the stink had begun testing its patience.
“Trap…” Ahnya murmurs to herself, brandishing her weapon in both hands and taking up a ready stance. “Probably using a corpse to cover their sent.” Her eyes scan the treeline, waiting for whatever would come forth. Bandits? Cultists? Beastmen? She had heard stories of all three, but only believed one of these outcomes.
The others keep their weapons close, standing at the sides of the cart to protect the goods within. It wouldn’t be their first bandit surprise, but lucky for them they were well versed in fighting. In fact, most Av’rae are, it’s kept them alive on the harsh roads for so long!
“This is a first for me…” Tahl murmurs as he walks up beside Ahnya, sword drawn and shield ready to go. “No fake damsel or pit covered in leafs… have you seen… smelled something like this before?”
“No,” Ahnya’s answer is brief, curt, and lacking any emotion as her eyes squint out from her hood. Her eyes go wide as she suddenly hears the sound of whatever it is out ther charging at the group, and even more so when she sees the horror that emerges from beyond. “Dè ann an ifrinn uile?” she manages to say in a breathless voice, before snapping to action. “Defend the cart!”
She twirls her halberd before taking up a defensive stands, the blade and spike of her weapon held outwards. She listens to her team behind her do the same, protecting every angle of the cart from the other monstrosities beginning to emerge from the woods. Her attention, however, is firmly placed on the leader, or perhaps the first hapless foe to have come across them.
As the beast comes closer, she takes a step, lets out a warcry common among her people. “Airson an dia crùbach!” With practiced precision, she lunches the end of her spiked halbred further, piercing into the beast’s disgusting troso, and uses his momentum to lift him way over her head, then behind her. The beast roars, but is quickly silenced by the large foot of the porcupine beast’s clawed foot, crushing its head with ease.
Behind her, Tahl slams his shield into a speedier beast, one that may have once been an old woman, but her monstrous appearance betrayed any second thoughts the Av’ may have had. The shield clatters against her, sending her onto the ground before the Av’ swings his sword, cleaving the arm from yet another monster.
There’s a defiant laugh from the cart as the cook, Aleh’Moors swings his impressive hammer, shattering the head of another festering beast, then caving in the chest of another in one smooth motion. For a cook, his swing was truly devestating.
Finally, at the rear, the armoured Al’Kahn shrugs off a firm hit from a lesser monster, making him laugh in triumph before driving his pauldron shoulder into whatever-the-beast-was’ nose, shattering it, but not stopping it. One cleave of his double sided war axe brough its end, but even Kahn isn’t fast enough to stop the beast that had somehow gotten behind him, drawing its clawed fingers froward and fiercely lunging at him like a hungry lion pounces on its prey. Kahn whirls around just in time to meet its gaze, or lack-thereof, and raises his arm to protect his face, but before it can land its hit, it falls to the ground beside him, gurgling its death rattle. A steel bolt had pierced the back of its cranium and stuck out the front of its head, bits of rotting brain lingering at its tip.
Khan looks up to see Teh’Ranyaa loading another bolt and switching her targets. That woman could hit a fly from a hundred yards… he has no time to admire her further, however, as he quickly turns his attention back to the hoard.
At the front of there group, Ahnya cuts and dodges her way around the onslaught with grace, using every part of her weapon to keep them away. She had already been unlucky enough to receive a light scratch or two to her arms and legs, but she had no time to worry about them, instead pushing on with her defence, ever defiant against the beasts, not allowing them any closer than they had already gotten, but even she knew they were outnumbered.
“Where are the guards that patrol these roads?!” Tahl calls out as he cuts into another beast, then blocks another with his shield. “What are these things?!”
“Humans!” Aleh calls out, knocking another off of the back of their cart. “Can’t trust ‘em to defend anything!”
Ahnya cuts through another, barely avoiding another hit, and beginning to feel the battle fatigue. She could fight, absolutely, but she’s a trade leader, she couldn’t hold a candle to the endurance of a true Av’rae warrior or Elder Guard, and whatever these creatures are? They had endurance in droves, like some sort of crazed, fanatic berserker.
She knew they wouldn’t last long.
“Give them everything we have!” she calls out. “Let them break their backs against us!” Her attention shifts quickly back to the cart. “Ranyaa! The signal!”
The ranger on the cart nods, knowing exactly what she meant. With one more shot, she ducks into the cart and rummages through a crate until she finds a cylinder with a long fuze attached, wrapped onto a bolt. It only takes a moment, but she manages to get the fuze lit and loads it onto her crossbow, and without hesitation launches it into the air.
The cylinder flies gracefully up and away from the battle before detonating into a bright light and a thick red cloud, something traders would often use to signal for help. They weren’t cheap, but if it meant saving their lives? Every piece of gold matters.
The group only had one choice now. Fight, kill, and survive. If they’re lucky? They’d get help. If not? Well, they wouldn’t have to worry about how much they’d earn from their wares.
As they fought the beasts, the hapless caravan would find that the monsters were not as inhuman as they'd originally anticipated. Despite being horribly deformed, each creature seemed to retain the voice of the human it had once been. They screamed in agony as they were cut down, begging for mercy even as they reached and clawed for the merchants' throats. Their faces twisted and contorted with pain as they were met with blades and arrows, and the few that still retained their eyes met their slayers' gazes with remarkably lucid, remorseful stares. Their bodies may have been turned to monsters, but it seemed that at least some part of their minds remained intact. A tiny part of their psyche remained human, but seemed helpless to stop the body from hungering for living flesh.
"Help me-" begged one, before a crossbow bolt found its temple.
"It hurts," whimpered another, clutching an axe wound in its shoulder as it laid helplessly on the ground.
"So cold," whispered one of the creatures as it lunged for Ahnya's back. "Cold. Please, you're warm. Please. Help-"
It was cut off by the dull thud of an arrow, impacting directly between its shoulderblades. The creature fell to the ground, seizing and writhing in agony. It began to foam at the mouth, bloodshot eyes going wide with pain and shock as the poison took hold. It met Ahnya's gaze as she looked down, and there was nothing but fear in its eyes. It silently plead for Ahnya to help it, to stop the pain, to do something...but the arrow's poison acted fast, and it was soon left unable to do anything but convulse on the ground, letting out agonized gasps and whimpers as the poison spread through its body.
More poisoned arrows arced through the air, each finding its mark in one of the beasts. The deafening clamor of combat was soon replaced with the cries of the dying creatures, sounding more like an infirmary of plague victims than a battlefield. Several dozen archers stepped out of the woods, drawing long knives from their belts and driving them through the throats of the pitiful, fallen beasts. Each wore a long, hooded black robe that shadowed their faces and carried short recurve bows. Their quivers seemed to be specially designed, crafted out of some sort of lightweight metal and having covers that snapped shut. One man walked up to the caravan, flipping his hood back to reveal a handsome, youthful face.
"Are you alright?" he asked, snapping the latch on his quiver shut. "That seemed awfully close. Do any of you need the services of a healer? I'm Dolich Vespida, heir to the House Vespida, and I'm terribly sorry that this happened to you on our roads. I will say, though, it's awfully brave of you to be travelling under the...current circumstances."
"Doli!" called a woman, kneeling over one of the beasts. "This one doesn't seem to have been struck by an arrow. It'll probably survive."
"Chain it up and take it back alive, then, Vala," said Dolich. "We'll see what makes these things tick."
Ahnya saw the terror in their eyes and heard their desperate calls for mercy, but there wouldn’t be any saving them, not while something drove them to physical madness. She had no time to stop them, no time to actually help, only time to defend themselves. “I’m sorry,” she repeats with every kill, but finds the adrenaline stopping any real form of remorse. It was kill or be killed, as it often was on the roads. After another kill, she glances to the others. “Make it quick!” she calls out. “End their suffering! Do not relent!” She had heard calls for mercy before, mostly by bandits that thought they would be an easy target, but they were often ended before they found any mercy. Human bandits were but vermin to the mousetrap, but these humans? It wasn’t their choice to attack, and in attacking they gave Ahnya’s caravan no choice but to defend themselves.
At least, that’s what they’d tell themselves.
She whirls around, catching the throat of another possessed human with the blade of her halberd, giving them a quick, merciful death, one worthy of the corrupted innocent. It was the only mercy she could afford them, after all.
The leader is taken by surprise as the one sneaks up behind her, but before she could bring up her halbred’s shaft in a defensive stance, its taken down by an arrow, and none like the bolts Ranyaa carried. It was human made. Salvation?
Ahnya draws her halberd’s pointed end to the approaching hooded figure, as did the rest of her caravan, ready for anything. Once it speaks however, Ahnya takes it as a welcome break from the violence. She pants as she slowly lowers her weapon, finally feeling the fatigue in full force. She looks to her group and notes that they were all still on their feet, if a little dinged up. “Humans,” she says, addressing the group. “I should thank you… but I am not yet certain this isn’t your doing.” She gestures to the corpses around them. Then he mentioned the name Vespida, a name known by most Av’rae through stories as old as the D’neir conflict. “Vespidas… friends of the Av’rae.” She finally recognises the shadowy allies of her people and offers a small bow, which is still quite the bow considering she stands taller than just about all of the Av’, and the men of her caravan stand even taller than that. “A healer for our wounds, yes, mòran taing.”
As the beast of burden slowly calms, it approaches behind Ahnya and gives her a small nudge. She returns the nudge in kind with a pat on its head, and notes the amount of missing quills, then the bodies pierced by its projectiles, some even pinned to trees. “Is math a rinn thu mo charaid.” The Av’rae language seemed somewhat melodical, but with a slight tinge of harshness in the consonants. A strange language… “You will regrow them.” Their strength isn’t the only reason her people choose these beasts as their companions. They make for excellent defense.
Her attention goes back to the humans. “Ahnya’Breyiik. Current circumstances?” she asks, raising an eyebrow as she looks over her wounds. Those will hurt in the morning… “I have not heard of such circumstances, but my heart feels heavy and my stomach tingles… these are the work of magic.” She gestures to the creatures. “Tell me I am wrong, I beg of you. Some sort of vile experiment?” Her attention shifts to the one named Vala. “Be gentle!” She says, slightly startled. “They are not truly dead. Whatever they are, they were driven to this madness, but they can still think and speak.” Her eyes lower as she looks over the blood tainted land. “I may live to regret this, but I was given little choice. None of us were.”
“I won’t regret it,” Kahn mutters as he shoulders his axe, not a scratch on him. “It was a trick, to catch us off guard. To make us hesitate and think twice.” He looks to Dolich and looks him over, unimpressed, but thankful. “Av’rae do not hesitate.”
Ahnya gives him a pat on the shoulder and points over to the cook, who had a nasty gash on his arm, and even through pained expressions he manages a smile, letting the group of humans look it over. Just a flesh wound, nothing to be overly worried about, he’s certain.
“Do not let this happen again,” Ahnya says as she looks to Doli. “Not every caravan is defended as well as we. Many will lose their lives if these roads are not properly patrolled. Last time I came through here, there were many guards. So far? None.”
She offers her hand though, standing straight once again. “But it is all said, and it is all done. You have our thanks.”
Vala looked up at Ahnya's comment about being gentle and chuckled bitterly, planting a knee firmly between the creature's shoulder blades and twisting its deformed arms painfully behind its back. A length of cord appeared in her gloved hands, and she bound its wrists tightly together with a practiced ease. Grabbing it by the hair, she pulled its head back, stuffing a bundle of rags into its mouth to stifle its cries. The creature thrashed and convulsed, trying to escape her grasp but to no avail. Once the creature was sufficiently restrained, she stood up and kicked it over onto its back, planting a boot on its chest to keep it from rising until a pair of the hooded archers came to throw a bag over its head and drag it into a waiting carriage.
"There's a time and place for being gentle," she said, brushing off her clothes and removing her gloves. "Pick the wrong time and place and you get killed. Surely you'd know that, living out on the roads. Their minds and bodies are twisted, they're monsters no matter how much they beg. I doubt you'd show bandits any more mercy."
As she approached, the caravan would be able to get a better look at her face. She had the clean, refined look of a noble about her, with high cheekbones and pretty features. Her skin seemed oddly raw, as though she'd just recently lost a layer of skin, and strange scars ringed her eyes. Catching the nomads' gaze, she flipped her hood back up, hiding her face once more. Unlike the others' plain black cloaks, hers was lined with golden trim and had horizontal yellow bars embroidered across the back. Clearly, she was no common archer. Meanwhile, Dolich sighed, rubbing his face in his hands.
"So you haven't heard," he said. "Not surprising, I guess. You've likely been on the road for a while. Well...there's no easy way to say this, so here goes. The Book of Night has been opened. Its guardians failed, and its contents were released across the land. Some of its pages must have landed around here. The entire kingdom was caught unawares. Some of these...things that we just killed were the guards that patrolled this road. We've spent the last three days sweeping this area, trying to find where the pages landed and cleaning up any corrupted souls we encounter. You're correct, this is black magic, and if we don't work quickly the whole land may end up tainted. It's unfortunate that you were caught up in this, but it's probably best if you allow us to escort you back to the Vespida estate. It's not safe to be on these roads at any time of day, but especially not at night, and the sun will set soon."
The Av’ winces at the sight of the monstrous human being treated like such, but she looks away. The human brought up a few good points, ones she would have made herself. She’s more frazzled than she thought… “No,” she says. “I would not offer bandits such a luxury.” Had she gone soft? Perhaps it had been too long since she had a good fight like the one they had just survived.
She peers out of her own hood, still not bringing it down, but her own features are quite prominent. White tattoos cross down over her eyes and around her cheeks, a common trait among Av’, and two baubles hang from her horns that curve down and outwards. Her features are soft, but quite beautiful, if not for the dark rings around her eyes of exhaustion.
Ahnya takes a few notes of the human female, but she only notices a handful of things before she’s covered up again. Perhaps it had to do with her scars? Ahnya had her own, she didn’t mind seeing scars in the slightest. Then again, humans are known to be more vein about their appearances.
Her attention shifts back to the male, and a frown furrows her well trimmed brow. “Of course it has,” she says in a low grumble. “And your people wondered why the magical races of this race were appalled that you humans had stolen away the magic. We would sooner trust the Dwarves with such an item than humans. Now look,” she says, gesturing to the bodies. She takes a deep breath as she remembers that these humans were not responsible for the actions taken by an evil emperor centuries ago. “I apologise. Such matters are… sore for my kind.”
Not as sore as her wounds, however, as they begin to ache with the lack of adrenaline. She looks to her caravan and sighs, running calculations in her head. “We were hoping to reach town by sun down… we have many wares still to trade.” Her eyes go between each of her companions. The only ones who could likely continue the journey were Kahn and Raynaa, everyone else was either wounded or exhausted. “But walls to rest behind are welcome. If your people are not interested in such wares… they will not spoil with a day’s delay.”
She turns and gives the man a bow, the only moment she would be just barely shorter than him, and stands straight again. She peers down at him, wondering if this is some sort of trick… but she’s too tired to think about it further. If it were another family, she would consider differently, but the Vespidas were friends of her kind. They had earned a modicum of trust. “We will follow, human,” she says in a light tone. “We will not take up any space, and we will leave by sunrise. No further hospitality outside of your healers will be necessary.”
"I doubt that the good people of the town will have much interest in your wares," said Dolich. "Not to take away from your fine goods, but half the people in the town just fell here on this road. The page landed right in the town square, on market day to boot. I haven't seen it yet myself, but the reports have been...horrifying."
Sighing, he gestured to more archers in the woods. The Vespida troops led horses out onto the road, and Dolich hopped onto a well-groomed beast, thinner and lighter than the warhorses the other families favored. Seeing no other beasts of burden other than the strange, spiny creature, he stretched out a hand to Ahnya, offering her a spot on his horse. Vala took to her own mount, but rode apart from the others and didn't offer a ride to any of the other traders.
"This was the largest group of these...things that we've seen yet," said Dolich, gesturing to the scattered bodies littering the road. Already, the hooded figures had begun swarming the road like ants, dragging the corpses off the main road and piling them onto carts like trash. If nothing else, they were efficient, even going so far as to pick up any stray arrows and kick dirt over puddles of blood.
"We've found it's best to kill them from a distance," he continued. "Many of our soldiers are from the surrounding villages, and these things may have once been their friends, relatives, lovers. A few have attempted to reason with the monstrosities. The awful things will beg for forgiveness or tell you that they love you even as they claw out your throat. We lost quite a few good men before we switched to the poisoned arrows."
A cry from behind them caused him to turn, just in time to see one of the archers struggling with a creature in a ditch. The tiny figure couldn't have been more than eight before it was turned, and was sobbing uncontrollably as it stabbed at the archer's eyes with its long, twisted fingers. The sound of hoofbeats approached quickly as Vala rode towards the struggling pair, expertly weaving around the archer and yanking back on the reins. The horse reared up on two legs with a whinny before coming down heavily, crushing the creature's skull beneath its hooves.
"These aren't even the worst things we've seen," said Dolich. "But this isn't a subject for a cold road. We'll discuss more when we get to the castle."
“It is a good thing we were not early then,” Ahnya says, feeling disheartened for the town. They were going to make so much coin! Oh, and the fact they’re all likely dead. What a horrible way to go. “We will be avoiding this area. There is no need for us to go there now, but I wish your men well if they are required to.” Thank goodness they didn’t have that sort of responsibility.
She shakes her head at the offer of a ride and instead climbs onto the cart with her comrades, sitting at the front behind Tahl, who had since reattached it to the beast. “Taking enemies from afar is why we put our trust in Ranyaa. We can all operate our own ranged weapons, but she is by far our most skilled.” She hooked a thumb towards the ranger in their presence, who has since made herself busy cleaning her recovered bolts.
Ahnya hears the commotion, but quickly turns away, choosing instead to maintain some semblance of sanity. If she were to watch what was about to happen, it wouldn’t be a very good week for her. Instead, her focus remains on the human male. “Warnings would be appreciated… but I think we have all had our fill of horror stories for today. I think we could all do with some rest and reprieve before we move on.”