Jaeworl was slumped against a small tree. One lone tree, defiantly standing amidst the destruction wrought upon the village. Around him birds cawed, feasting on the carrion rotting in the fading sunlight. The air was permeated with the stench of death intermingling with the scents of the forest carried by the evening breeze.
The ruins of the village were peaceful. He wondered idly how many days it had been since the battle. No more than a few, or the place would be overrun with scavengers. Above him a different bird began to sing, offering a lullaby to the setting sun as the colourless world around them began to settle in for the night.
Jaeworl’s broken limbs were numb. His hands held no strength to grip, nor his feet any steps left to walk. In his lungs were his final breath. Yet his lifeless eyes could still see, his ears still hear. His body was dead, his spirit lingering only because of his preparations. Soon he would pass from this existence. But he had yet one last thing he needed to do, one last task before he could finally rest.
The world grew silent around him. Distances warped; the well once so close seemed suddenly far away, the far side of the ‘square’ now much closer. The shadows lengthened, and those deepened between the charred husk of one burnt out dwelling and a lone wall barely standing across the path.
He had sensed the being approaching even before the faery trod appeared.
The gremlin hopped out of the faery lands with an eager gleam in its eyes and a too-long staff in hand. It moved in a stooped fashion, using its free hand as much as its feet for support. The long, spindly limbs of the creature added to the unsettling feeling inspired by its gait. Its ragged clothing and even its scraggly hair was adorned with spirit tokens, from feathers and bones to beads and tiny pouches.
The shaman stopped and stood up straight, peering down at Jaeworl with its beady eyes. Slowly a hungry grin split its flat, ursine face and revealed the yellowed fangs within its maw.
“I be Ghaba Ghobbok, Great Shaman!” it proclaimed, slamming the butt of its staff against the ground. Lightning leaped from the staff, a simple discharge for effect. “Great Ghaba Ghobbok, Vanquisher of Qor, Chief of Chiefs!”
Jaeworl was not impressed, though his lifeless form would not have shown it either way. He was curious, however, what could have drawn the pompous goblin to this place. Perhaps it had come in search of a troll spirit, seeking to ensnare and subjugate one of those who had passed? Or maybe it was here to collect ingredients for some vile concoction? Troll blood had many such uses, though it was doubtful there would be any fresh enough here.
At least it had not brought with it the components to animate the dead as disgusting-
“Old man forest!” The creature jabbed a finger forward to point at him, desire suddenly flaring to life in its dark eyes. “You come with Great Ghaba, Shaman of Dragons, yes?” It shook the staff in his direction, jiggling one of the pouches hanging from the top. A pouch enveloped in an aura of magic.
Jaeworl’s shock was such that he felt as though his eyes had widened.
He reached within, drawing forth the magic yet linked to his will. “No, I will not.” Jaeworl was no novice to the magic of spirits, yet it was very strange wielding it so… directly. The concentration required simply to speak… No wonder it took such effort to communicate with them. “In death, I shall be one with the forest.”
The goblin tilted its head back and sneered at him. “Fool!” it spat at him, reaching up to a necklace of teeth dangling around its neck.
Like all druids, Jaeworl had developed an ability to sense magical energies gathered. But now, as a spirit… That sense was not simply stronger, but it was overpowering. The faded landscape surrounding them was suddenly vibrant with shades of magic.
And brightest of them all was the shining star atop the shaman’s staff.
Jaeworl had never seen such a spell before, yet he knew instinctively what it was. He could feel it tugging at him, tendrils of magic snaking out with the goal of trapping him. “Forgive me, my friend, for I cannot grant your wish,” he whispered, throwing an apologetic look toward the well and the fallen man he knew lay behind it.
His only escape was to end the enchantment keeping him bound to his body before it was too late.
The Great Ghaba let out an open-mouthed growl of anger as he saw the spirit leave the body. “Wretched, selfish, stupid forest spirit,” he grumbled under his breath, staring at the spirit as it slowly coalesced into the form of a great forest wyrm.
“You think you win?” he snarled at it, shaking his staff above his head with both hands. “You no beat Great Ghaba! You no join Great Ghaba? Fine. Great Ghaba master many spirits. Great Ghaba master you!”
Great Ghaba, supreme among shamen, greatest of goblins, subjugator of spirits, and destroyer of enemies would not be beaten by this one. He had put far too much effort into getting this opportunity, and would not miss this chance.
“Hear me, spirit, and heed these words!” The Great Ghaba raised his arms high and stared at his prize. “By my might, you shall cower. By my magic, you shall serve. By my will, you shall obey. You dare challenge the Great Ghaba Ghobbok?! You shall come! See now my power and regret! I name Qor, Great Dragon! Heed now my call and claim for me this one!”
Great Ghaba could see the confusion in the spirit wyrm’s change of posture, then the fear as Great Ghaba’s mighty servant manifested between them. Great Ghaba allowed it use of only a small amount of its power, but still it was far more than this pathetic wyrm would ever have known.
No spirit could match Qor!
The two spirits collided, locking in a draconic wrestling match where the dragon soon pinned the wyrm. Yet even as it attempted to bite down and tear out the throat of its opponent, the cunning wyrm shifted its form. Suddenly the dragon found itself trapped in the coils of a giant snake.
Great Ghaba cackled with glee, thrilled at the prospect of adding such a cunning servant to his menagerie.
Around them he could see other spirits gathering as the otherworldly denizens of the Wood were drawn closer to investigate. Minor spirits, unworthy of his attention.
Then the snake struck, its maw open wide as it lashed out to sink intangible fangs into Great Ghaba’s face. But the shaman was too fast, hopping back just barely in time. A calculated gambit that could have won the fight, but instead let the dragon loose once more.
It was clear this wyrm knew much of the rules of the spirit realm already.
Great Ghaba backed away and settled down to sit cross-legged. He used his staff to draw symbols in the dirt around him, then fished out some powdered stones mixed with crushed ghost leaves and dried teardrops. These he strew about him while calling upon some of his lesser servants to imbue them with magic, enacting a ward to protect him from the angry wyrm.
Turning his attention back to the duel, Great Ghaba was pleased to see that his champion again held the upper hand. Indeed, the spirit dragon was dominating its opponent. Bite after slash tore into the spirit body of its enemy. And even the wicked claws of the wyrm’s forelimbs failed to do more than dislodge a few scales from this mere wisp of mighty Qor.
The wyrm was as yet going strong, however, and no doubt had a few druidic tricks left to play. Great Ghaba looked forward to seeing them, for soon they would be his tricks.
He felt strange. As though the air itself was heavy, pressing down on him like some great weight. Slowly he pushed himself onto his stomach. With great effort he managed to pull his legs in to get on his knees. His body hurt all over. Lacerations, bruises, broken bones that hadn’t set right… He was a mess.
At least he wasn’t a dead mess.
He sat back on his legs, pushing himself up from prostrate into a sitting position. His right arm would need to be broken and allowed to heal again before it would be useful. His left eye refused to open, but he could see just fine with the right one.
Aside from things being pretty blurry.
Something in his chest kept him from drawing deep breaths, which would be a problem. He reached out and grabbed hold of the cold stones of the well, forcing himself to stand.
Looking around, he saw carrion eaters gathered around piles of dead trolls, yet none of them were eating. All were staring at… nothing? There lay Jaeworl’s corpse, propped up by a tree and with one of its limbs protruding from his throat. Closer to him, just a few strides past the well, a small creature was sitting with its thin arms out wide, holding a staff pressed to its forehead.
But the scavengers were not looking at either of them.
Their attention was transfixed upon the empty air between the two figures. Wait! What was that? He squinted. It had looked like movement in the corner of his eye, yet he could see nothing there now. He rubbed his eye with his arm as best he could, unwilling to let go of the well for fear of falling over.
Twilight was in full bloom, with deep shadows dancing around him and light fleeing from the sky above. And there, in the darkness, two great silhouettes clashing in deadly combat. As he stared at them it slowly dawned on him that the smaller one must be Jaeworl, with long claws and feathered back.
That meant the other one must be the little creature.
The druid seemed to be in dire straits, forced into a defensive crouch that offered few opportunities to retaliate. The winged silhouette moved swiftly, striking from one side only to dart around and strike from another. It left itself open only in attempts to lure Jaeworl to make a fatal mistake, yet the old man fell not into its traps.
But for how long before desperation forced his hand?
And all around them other silhouettes shifted around in the darkness. He could not see them, except for flickers at the edge of his vision, but he could feel their presence. And their hostility, their anger. But it was not aimed at him, it was aimed at the… He blinked, looking closely at the mottled greenish gray hide and scruffy hair of the creature.
A goblin? This far from Qor?
Suddenly there came a screech, yet there was no sound. He could not quite describe it. It was as though he heard the scream with his heart, not his ears. He knew it came from Jaeworl, could tell even before he glanced back at the battle. The goblin’s silhouette had forced Jaeworl out of his defensive position, pinned him on his back and was raking him with its claws, tearing loose armor plates with each mighty rend.
The goblin let out a hoarse laughter, apparently quite pleased.
Desperate to help and unable to think of anything else to do, he rushed for the seated goblin. He doubted he would get close before tripping over himself and falling flat, but he had to try. Even as he began to move, there came a change to the surrounding Shadows. It was as though they were brought suddenly to a boil, their hatred finding a weapon in him.
He could feel the wind picking up, pushing him forward as his steps lightened. With a low growl, he threw himself forward and slammed shoulder first into the unsuspecting goblin. The two tumbled in a heap of claws and limbs and teeth, rolling over the ground before separating.
The goblin stared at him with a mixture of incredulity and anger, then looked beyond him.
The Shadows were closing in around them, a teeming mass of fury gathering like a storm. They wanted the goblin, but somehow he knew that they would not strike with precision. If he was too close when the blow fell, they would not hesitate to destroy him as well.
“Filthy, pathetic… Nothing!” the goblin spat after him as he began crawling away on his back. “You dare interrupt Great Ghaba?! I curse! I name Athrouq, give your misrriiieeee!” The goblin’s words turned into an anguished cry as it fell back, holding its staff before it defensively.
A light broke through the cloud of shadows around them. The shimmering, translucent scales of a large wyrm poking its head through the darkness. It bared its fangs at the goblin, opening its maw and snapping it shut just shy of the creature.
Despite this, the goblin stared back defiantly. Slowly it pulled itself into a stand, somehow keeping the Shadows at bay even now.
“You free, old man forest. Spirits of Wood too many, not worth effort for Great Ghaba.” The goblin tapped its staff against the ground, the Shadows behind it parting to allow it passage as it backed away into the darkness.
He scoffed at the departing creature, then looked at Jaeworl to see the relief clear on his ghostly face. It seemed Jaeworl didn’t believe its boast quite so idle as it had seemed.
He felt the druids gratitude without any words being spoken, much like the scream earlier. The wyrm nodded at the ground beside him, indicating a series of strange symbols drawn in the dirt and a circle of sand broken by the tussle.
“You dead?” Uragh looked over at the broken body of the elf. Even a troll would not survive wounds like those. He hobbled over to it, kneeling down and resting his hand on the druid’s chest. The spirit wyrm moved up beside him, he thought, but looking up he could no longer see it. The Shadows had vanished, too.
“Farewell, old friend,” Uragh snapped the stick protruding from Jaeworl’s throat, then pulled the body off the tree and laid it down on the ground. Using one hand, he clumsily searched through the man’s belt pouches until he found the seeds. He couldn’t bury the body, so he did his best to put a pile of dirt on the man’s chest together with some seeds.
Above, a thunderclap heralded the arrival of rain.
Jaeworl watched Uragh do his best to perform the rites of burial. The magic enacted by the shaman to bind his spirit to this world was quickly fading, and his own power had long since been depleted.
“Good bye, fellow warden. I release you, your debt repaid.” He knew the troll would not hear him, yet he hoped somehow the message would become known.
Somehow, he trusted, the spirits of the Wood would see to it that Uragh knew he was free.
If only there had been some way to keep his promise to Aziz.