The Fertile Lands
A Meeting in Shadow
The cavern was silent save the sound of the fire. It was burning in the center of the chamber on an altar of many-colored stone hewn from a great pillar of drip-formed rock its perimeter was thousands of smaller columns and resembled the hideous maw of a savage animal. Smaller grotesqueries filled the natural hall: stone tentacles taller than a man menacingly reaching for its prey; slick, bulbous mounds covered in red as if blood was boiling up from the ground itself; coils like serpents lying in wait for the perfect moment to burst into life and spring upon their victim. All these and more basked in the ever-shifting light of scores of candles and the faint odor of rotting eggs. It was an unnerving place, certainly, but the feature most unsettling was the fire itself.
While the room was well illuminated by the multitude of candles spread about the periphery, a fierce shadow engulfed its center. It was the fire raging on the altar. Flames the color of a starless night danced violently atop the yellow and orange and red rock formed over the ages. The candles burned yellow and spread their light. These flames burned black and consumed light fervidly.
A single figure stood beyond the reach of the dark flames but wholly in the dread-shadows they cast. The man wore an elaborate robe of fine midnight-colored cloth covered in strange markings that seemed to reflect not light, but shadow. An overlarge hood shielded his face from the candlelight as he stared into the black flames.
From behind, another figure approached noiselessly. Through the maze of candles burning on stones, she made her way deftly down natural stairs to where the altar and the robed man stood. Unlike his intricate livery, she wore a well-worn set of leather armor and boots that at one time had been kettle black but now had faded to a dark gray and were stained in several places a deep crimson. She stood opposite the man across the altar and looked through the shadow-made-flame at his aged visage. In the dancing shadows, only his prominent nose was easily and constantly discernible; the rest of his face was only a series of canyons of flesh and deep-set eye sockets filled with darkness. She had dark brown hair pulled into a neat ponytail extending to her waist and smooth skin that soaked up the darkness emanating from the flame.
After a moment, the man spoke quietly and slowly. “Is it finished?”
The woman stood still; she stared into his dark eye sockets unblinkingly.
Again the man spoke with an old man’s high-pitched and oft-cracking voice, “Good. You have done well. I have a new task for you.” His words were drawn out and deliberately uttered. “We extracted information that a conclave is called.”
At this, the woman’s brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. He continued, “I fear, though, that we have spoilt our source making further inquiry impossible.” Through the opening of his hood, she saw him wince regretfully. He lowered his head to look back into the flames. She stood unwavering.
Minutes passed before he raised his head again to look upon her unmoved face. “We must find the gathering fingers and strike quickly before they organize against us. Worse,” he paused to take a deep breath, “if they find Garad’s Lost Helm, it will embolden them.”
The woman turned on her foot quickly and silently started to walk back into the light up the natural stairs. As she passed the old man, he reached out desperately and grabbed her elbow. She looked at him with blatant disdain and brushed off his wrinkled, gray hand. “Stay here and fret, old man,” she said harshly, “I have work to do. I rooted them out of Riedhof and left their temple in ruin. Do you wonder why they flee to meet in secret? They fear me.”
She paused, reached into a pocket, and withdrew a vial. Without blinking or averting her gaze from the man, she turned it over and over in her hands. The man was afraid; she could see it. Though he would not look away, he could not help but tremble nervously. A cruel smile flashed across her lips and vanished again like a flash of shadow-flame. She returned the vial, shaken but unopened, to her pocket and rested her hands on the hilts of her weapons.
“You fear me, too. Good. One day, Lord willing, it will be your worthless face I am sent to find. But for now, that is not his plan.” She stepped closer to the man and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Yes, he speaks to me too, old man. You do not have a monopoly on devoutness or his blessed words. And, unlike your wasted form, I am fit to serve him. So sleep soundly for now, if you dare; one day you will not awaken and it will have been my steel and his fire that dispatched you.”
Her grip on the hilts tightened and relaxed and she resumed her journey up the stone and out of shadow. She cackled boisterously, “The flame is coming for you!” Echoes boomed off the cavern and caused the old man to flinch. Under her breath she added, “The flame comes for us all.”
When she had been gone for hours, the old man finally turned away from the flame of shadows burning on the altar. By then, the candles had all but been reduced to pools of spent wax on the stone. He slowly marched up the stone stairs and left the cavern. Through a series of long and winding passageways in the ground, he made his way to the familiar stone door adorned with markings that matched his vestments. Before reaching to open it, he paused. He took two deep breaths and lowered his hood from his bald, splotchy, old head. He put his hand on the latch and slowly opened the thick stone door using all his might. He stepped cautiously into the bright light of day on the other side.
He was in a small glade in the forest and around him the sound of nature felt deafening and oppressive. He closed the immense door again and felt a wet substance on its surface. He sniffed the clear liquid but smelt no odor. He rubbed it between his fingers pensively for several minutes before raising it to his lips….