The Warrior felt sweat bead at the top of his back.
He was not a cowardly man. He had killed a griffon barehanded, when he was too poisoned to lift an axe. He once stared a doomknight in its eyeless sockets before running it through. But these rangers had a different edge. Cool, peaceful waters, with an undercurrent of mean-like-a-snake.
So far they had fed him, led him through a deep forest filled with weird animals, and treated him like an honored guest. Then after walking all day, while building a fire for the evening, the Warrior idly mentioned that ear-splitting crack of Thunder. Over and over. When he and over a hundred other heroes had gathered with the Thunderstones, and together banished the Doom, evil incarnate, from his world. Was it a hundred heroes? Didn’t somebody say that? It was a chaotic day. A lot of people. A lot of them dead.
“No, look! It’s more like the stones brought me here,” he said. His voice hardly cracked at all. “Look, our world suffered under Doom for generations. We thought we were banishing him. We had no idea what would happen. We thought we were killing him. We had no idea our world was the prison where someone else put him. We didn’t know we were sending him here.”
Five glowering faces looked unconvinced. Two elves, a human—and two jaguars, of all things. What was with all these trained pets? He knew another ranger and hawk had gone hunting, but now thought that might have been a ruse. The Warrior guessed their likely positions in the trees above, based on sight lines. If it came to a fight, he probably wouldn’t fare as well as that time with the griffon.
A broad-shouldered elf, clutched his left hand suddenly, stifling a cry of pain. All eyes turned as he caught his breath, and reconstructed his stoicism.
The tension broke suddenly, like a unlimbered bowstring.
“Take a moment, Uilleam,” said a tall human woman, their leader. She put her hand on her forehead, whispered what sounded like a ritual prayer.
A few seconds later she turned to the Warrior and sheathed her long knife. “Please forgive our hostility, stranger. Your world’s Doom threatens us as well, on many fronts. You have only just arrived, but Doom has been here for much longer. Time travels strangely between worlds, it seems. We have seen his work already. He appears to be enjoy it,” she said with no apparent humor.
The Warrior had no idea how to respond to this turn. His heart still raced. His eyes still darted, gauging distance to the nearest tree for cover, and which elf he would tackle to shield him from the jaguars’ claws.
Everyone else in the clearing seemed to be past it. The woman took a seat around the bundle of tented sticks. “I am a poor storyteller, Warrior, but please sit with me. Let me try a troubadour’s trade while we wait for Marcas and Caitir to bring dinner.” The jaguars went to pacing around the clearing, sniffing at the grass. She waved to the other elf with brown shaggy hair still looking concerned at Uilleam. “Fetlock, get this fire started while I tell a story.”
The Warrior sat down dumbly too. He forced his toes to unclench.
“I am Isbeil Sioman, Lieutenant of the Middlemarch rangers,” she said in a sing-song voice. “The world you step on, we call Tala. The ground is the skin of our goddess, Bandia.
“Our kingdom, Caledron, has known peace and stability for over 900 years. Mind you, your home had no sole claim on violence and depravity. But in Tala, we weakened our evil. We drove their champions to the fringes of the world, where they still exist at all. And we live in the balance, building and growing in the good that came after.
“Removing evil, as you learned first-hand, is very hard. It comes at great sacrifice. Keeping it at bay is a matter of continuing the sacrifice. Evil still lurks outside of us, in the orcs and dragons and djinn. We cannot wholly control their discord. But it also spawns anew from inside each of us. And there, we have some power.”
She was getting warmed up now, beginning to recite more than talk, like a litany. “In concert with our sweet Bandia, our wisest priests and oldest treefolk developed the pacts of seven Virtues. These Virtues we hold dear: honor, craftsmanship, care, verdance, harmony, beauty, and peace. Together, they keep our spirits focused and pure.
“The Virtues are opposed by seven Curses: shame, sloth, neglect, decay, discord, horror, and hostility. When our minds and hearts turn from Virtue, the evils manifest, burning our bodies. Good Talans are weakened, and verily slain if we harbor evil in our hearts.
“Curses are not permanent, in Bandia’s grace. We can atone, purify our bodies. But the quick nature of the Curses prevents us from cosseting evil. The burning reminds us to keep it distant. You saw a glimpse when Uilleam hated you for releasing Doom,” she gestured to the broad-shouldered elf, now blowing on the sparks that Fetlock had started under the tinder.
She broke the litany. “Is this clear to you, Warrior?”
The Warrior had been lulled by Isbeil’s speech. She was skilled at creating a peaceful atmosphere. He noticed himself relaxed, less than a minute after being ready to flee for his life.
“Uh, yeah,” he said catching up. “Your goddess keeps you safe, but burns you alive if you disobey.”
Isbeil blinked. “What an interesting understanding,” she said slowly. She seemed to be trying to wrap her mind around the Warrior’s curt summary. “That is not entirely correct, but you field a unique perspective, Warrior. We think this might be part of why you’re here.”
“You see, in recent months, things have decayed. Dragons awake in the south. Rimefiends crawl down from their glacierhame to the north. The horrorwisps bring madness on the western wetlands. The outside evils have grown stronger, for reasons we did not grasp—until the likes of you showed up.”
The fire was catching on just as the sun began to set. Uilleam and Fetlock still hovered, in case the flame faltered.
“Some call you, and the others like you, harbingers of evil,” Isbeil said. “And you might well be. You are not shielded as we. If we welcome you, you can disrupt our way of life, as surely as your Doom has disrupted our Caledron. But I do not think this must be the case. I think you are saviors.
“We can fight. But our pact with Bandia doesn’t allow us to easily deal in the strife of war. As an otherworlder, you have no pact—not subject to our Curses. This will cause many Talans to distrust you, and the others like you here. As Uilleam demonstrated, even those with the best intentions can falter.” Uilleam smiled sheepishly at the Warrior.
“But you may also be our best weapon against Doom. So we are taking you to the capital of Caledron, Dun Ordha, to visit our Beloved King Caelan, and to receive an assignment to explore the evils of the world.”
“What? Don’t I get a say?” the Warrior blurted.
Isbeil gestured around the clearing. “Warrior, the world is lovely, and our people good. Would you not want to defend this?”
Fetlock spoke for the first time, “Honor may also suggest that for your part in releasing Doom, you might feel compelled to participate in the consequences of your actions.”
“Does everybody here talk like a scholar?” the Warrior thought.
But he said, “Okay. I’ll help if I can.”
“Good,” Isbeil seemed satisfied. “If the weather holds, we should make Dun Ordha tomorrow. When Marcas and Caitir return, eat as much as you like. We don’t want you to look skinny for your audience with the king.”