The last time I had roamed the open world, it had been as a masked and anonymous caster, striking fear into the hearts of the many petty lords the original Duke of Vord sought to subjugate. While I could recall little of the actual campaigns, I did recall the general, over-arching themes of life on the march: Noise, exhaustion, and filth. In that, if in nothing else, traveling with my new companions proved much the same.
“You runt! Give me back my skewer!”
I blinked my eyes in irritation as a roar of anger shook me from my sleep. Looking down and over my shoulder, I stared into the campsite where the red-haired woman, Leric, was chasing a surprisingly quick-footed Radd around the fire. As I watched, Radd took the offending skewer in both his hands and raised it to his mouth, tearing away a hunk of roasted meat while simultaneously dodging a tackle from Leric.
“I don’t see your name on it now do I, fire-head? So what’s the bloody issue?”
Leric snarled in response, then lunged again, and I sighed in irritation as I readjusted my head and closed my eyes. I had gone to the trouble of finding a suitable tree branch, one both a good distance from the fire and high enough off the ground, precisely so that my rest would go uninterrupted. But from what I was seeing, and hearing, I would be hard pressed to truly avoid disturbance unless I fully left the small forest in which we were currently encamped.
“That’s enough, you two! We’re trying to avoid detection, if you’ll recall.”
From below me I heard the young man, Daniel, begin to scold the two troublemakers. As soon as we had dismounted from the day-long ride we’d begun at the Ducal mansion, he’d been unsubtly keeping a close eye on me. Though, because the first and last thing I’d done had been find my current perch and settle in, he had done little but hover around the base of my tree and bark reprimands at Radd and Leric whenever they became rowdy. Which was often.
I heard the sound of movement stop for a moment, and then I heard Leric remark with scorn.
“I don’t want to hear that from you, tinhead. You make more noise than both me and the midget combined, clanking around in all that armor.”
Daniel sighed, and moments later I felt my tree shudder slightly alongside the clank of metal on metal, leading me to assume the young man had stood up.
“Listen, I understand- We’re all a bit on edge at the moment, what with… recent events, but that’s no reason to antagonize each other. Especially not right now, when the Rhode Kingdom is certainly going to be looking for whoever torched the Vord Mansion and killed the Duke. Because, as it has seemed to have slipped your minds, we’re the ones they’re looking for!”
Silence met his words, and I allowed myself the smallest of hopes that perhaps peace would return to our humble campsite, at least for a short while. Then I heard a rustle from the underbrush on the other side of the camp, and that slim hope was quickly dashed.
“Alright, the wardings have been strung around the camp, about thirty paces out in every direction. Remember, don’t cross them until we’re ready to leave, or else Eve and I will have to redo all of them. And that would make me very cranky indeed. Also, Daniel, you’re being just as loud as the other two.”
Jessa’s chiding words carried over the camp, joined by a formless chirp of assent from Eve’s higher-pitched voice. Daniel’s response was slow and embarrassed in comparison.
I heard nothing in response, leading me to assume Jessa had simply waved the boy’s apology away. It had been an unexpected bonus of our rather short journey together so far, watching the obviously-smitten lad trip over both his tongue and himself whenever he interacted with the caster. It was one of the few things that had not been fully stripped from me over the course of my existence, that curiously bemused feeling I experienced every time I watched a mortal spend far more time than was necessary attempting to express their interest in another. That was not to say I didn’t understand- I had been mortal once, and I had been in love several times since, and every time was a new experience, a new challenge. Watching the boy and the caster reminded me of that, and of why I had ultimately chosen to withdraw from even merely observing the mortals- All it did, in the end, was compound the excruciating loneliness that had come to be an integral part of my existence. To lose one lover in the sands of time is hard enough, but to lose so many that no abacus could ever tally the total? To have one’s heart torn apart again with every lifetime that one exists?
Death would be preferable. Death is preferable.
A muted call drew me from my morose musings. Opening my eyes again, I turned my head to look down towards the base of my tree. There I found Jessa, standing with her arms crossed and an eyebrow quirked, looking up at me.
“Are you going to come join us for the meal? It’s not much, just some trail stew, jerky, and a rabbit that Tor poached, but I imagine after your stay in that dungeon you could do with some actual food. The Vords were never renowned for their hospitality, even towards their actual guests, so I can only imagine what they offer to their prisoners…”
I stared blankly at her for a few moments, considering whether or not I should take the offer seriously. I had consumed all variety of cuisine over the course of my eternity of wandering, but in the last century or so I hadn’t consumed anything of note. In fact, I doubt that I had eaten quite literally anything since the original duke of Vord had locked me in that room all those decades ago. But while I had grown used to the perpetual gnawing and cramping in my stomach long ago, I also now had to consider the fact that I was going to be traveling again, at least for a short period of time, and if I wished to avoid having to constantly use restoration castings on my body then I would need to feed it on occasion.
My decision made, I rolled to the side and let the weight of my body drag me off the branch, briefly enjoying the weightless sensation of falling before I crashed heavily into the ground and my neck slammed down onto a jutting root. I grimaced as I felt my spine shatter momentarily, robbing everything below my head of all feeling, before I felt it reform and fuse back together, restoring the sensations of life throughout my body. I had never managed to get used to that particular sensation, no matter how brief its stay, leaving me with a marked distaste for spinal wounds and being beheaded.
Rising, I dusted myself off and began to move towards the campfire, passing by Jessa who was standing silently with a part shocked, part bemused expression.
“The answer to your unspoken question is ‘nothing.’ The Vords don’t feed their prisoners- Or rather, they didn’t. Now then, what is this trail stew you mentioned?”
Jessa didn’t respond. Instead, I heard a rustle from beside me, and as I glanced over I was treated to the sight of Tor the hooded bowman emerging like a wraith from the forest, bow in one hand and another unfortunate rabbit in the other. He shook his hood back, revealing a grizzled face framed by short dark hair, and answered my question as he settled near the fire.
“It’s a dry stock, got a goodly amount of beans and jerky chunks in it. Add some water, heat it over a fire, pinch in some salt, and you’re set.”
I immediately took a liking to the hunter’s short-spoken demeanor and settled beside him, watching silently as he quickly and methodically skinned, gutted, and skewered the freshly caught rabbit. After a few moments, I heard Jessa sit down on my other side, and across the fire Radd and Leric engaged in an uneasy truce as they also took their spots. Daniel and Eve, who had been loitering quietly on the periphery while Eve conspicuously avoided looking at Tor’s butchery, came forward as well and lowered themselves to the ground near to Jessa. Without speaking, Jessa leaned forward and grabbed a wooden platter from a small stack resting a safe distance from the heat, then ladled some stew onto it from the pot resting in the fire. She passed the platter to me, then grabbed and filled another while I passed the platter on to Tor. It had been several lifetimes or so, long even before I had been hidden away in the Vord dungeons, since I had camped under the open stars with traveling companions and shared a meal. In fact, I couldn’t quite remember when it had been, or with who, that I had gone on a journey with anyone but my own thoughts and the book for company. I hadn’t missed it, but after so long, the variety was an appreciated change.
Then Radd snatched another skewer from Leric’s grasping fingers, and I sighed as the renewed squabble filled the clearing.
The fire had died low, the pot had been emptied, and the last of the skewers had been stripped of their meat. I sat silently, staring at the glowing embers of the once-vibrant flame as the sounds of sleep filled the clearing. Radd had fallen asleep sitting up, his back pressed against a tree and his cloak spread across his knees. Nearby, Leric was stretched out, using one arm as a pillow and the other grasping a sheathed dagger closely to her chest. On the edge of the clearing, cloistered in the shadow of a large and warped root, Eve slumbered peacefully under two cloaks, given to her by Jessa and Daniel to ward against the faint chill that marked the true arrival of night. The two had slipped off into the dark, ostensibly to check the condition of the wards one last time, but I suspected they were more interested in privacy than security at the moment. And Tor had slipped back into the dark, leaving me to sit alone and ponder, though I could hear the soft, rhythmic scrape of a blade on a whetstone carrying through the night. I welcomed the noise- I disliked the rambunctious energy of earlier, but I had also had my fill of silence for the moment.
“When day turns to night…”
I softly sang the opening to a song whose name I had long ago forgotten, drawing the book from the folds of my clothes as I did so.
“Fires seem to burn, ever so bright…”
I tossed the book lightly into the embers, smirking slightly as it shuddered in response.
“Did that annoy you? I suppose it would- You’ve never been fond of fire, I can recall that much still.”
The book didn’t respond. It never did. I suppose that was one of the greatest motivators for my hatred of the thing- My partner in eternity, yet it never said a word.
I sighed, then pulled one of my gloves off and reached out to cup an ember in my bare hand. I watched impassively as my flesh burned and blistered, then healed, then burned again. Pink to red, to pink again, all while pain lanced up my arm in flashes.
“Do you feel pain, I wonder? If not, do you feel mine? Is that why you always heal me? If so, is that why you keep me alive? Because you fear death?”
I spoke monotonously, the result of asking the same questions for eternity. The book responded in kind- With a single, short shudder, and then nothing more. I sighed again, then dropped the coal and pulled the book from the embers, warm but untouched as always. As I began to slip the book back into its normal location, I heard footsteps behind me, soft and light, like a child’s. A short glance towards the root where Eve had been slumbering revealed nothing but a slight indent in the ground, and empty shadows. I sighed.
“I shall speak with Thee now, ‘Immortal.’”
I did not acknowledge the spirit’s words for a long moment, then slowly glanced back over my shoulder to take in the sight of Eve standing there, still swaddled in two cloaks much too large for her small frame, eyes aglow once again.
“Will you now, o ‘Goddess?’”
The spirit tilted her head slightly at my mocking tone, but otherwise seemed to ignore my response, instead staring up at the moon that hung brightly overhead.
“I have heard whispers of thee, carried by the sylphs and the nymphs to mine ears while I was still rightfully worshiped as the Lady of the Moon. A mortal, possessed of the power and the arrogance of the Eldest, a forgotten champion…”
I snorted derisively, glaring back at the dying embers as I did so.
“An abandoned pawn, you mean.”
Behind me, I heard the spirit shift, and then the sound of footsteps once again entered my ears. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and I watched silently as the spirit paced around the fire until she stood on the opposite side, facing me across the low glow.
“Perhaps. But thou hast not been a pawn for time immemorial now, hast thou? The tales of the Eldest precede even mine own in age, and thou appearest only as a rumor even in the oldest of those. And yet, here thou sits before mine eyes, persisting still.”
I did not reply, but rather waited, silent. The spirit had a point, something she was working towards.
“The power thou wields… I know not its nature, but I know well that it is not thy own. It is beyond any mortal capabilities, any mortal comprehension. And yet, thou wieldest it with impunity, without direction or constraint. Why? What happened to thy sponsor?”
I stared silently at the spirit for a moment, then chuckled humorlessly.
“The answer to that is simpler than you suspect- I never had a sponsor.”
The spirit narrowed her eyes.
“Foolishness. No mortal has such power by nature. Even mine own strength, drained as it may be, is far beyond what any mortal could hope to hold alone.”
I quirked an eyebrow.
“I never said my power was mine by nature. I simply never had a sponsor to which I was pledged or indebted. The day I was empowered was also the day I became the sole wielder of this power.”
I watched with a sallow smile as the spirit silently digested my words for a moment, her eyebrows slowly narrowing.
“Thou… didst thou slay thy benefactor?”
My smile grew grim.
“No. No, I never had the satisfaction.”
I looked back down, staring at the cold lumps of ash that had once been home to vibrant flames.
“No, the one who cursed me with this fate proved a coward- They took their own life as soon as their burden had become mine.”