Miller slowly arose from his knees. The dark soil and spotted patches of grass stained his pants from where he had knelt those past two hours. A grave marker, notable only by its chest high size, stood before him in silent testament of loss, grief, and missed opportunities. When she was alive, Miller had feared her. He had kept his distance, mistrusting her zealous nature, her aggressive strength, her warrior's soul. Now, just two short years after her death, he was full of regrets. She had been right in the end, but she couldn't explain it. She couldn't, or wouldn't, subject herself to the judgments of others. He would love to go back and talk to her, to really get to know her, to show her what lay in his heart.
But that was simply a day dream. She cared as much for his opinion as anyone else's, except perhaps Mistress Aileen. He stepped forward toward the stone. His hand, almost with a will of its own, reached out and gently caressed the damp grey rock. Only two words were carved into the stone. Two words to give witness to a heart that was once full of energy, full of fury, full of life.
That simple name, shortened from the unpronounceable gibberish that she was born to, carried more weight than many others to him. It meant believing, really believing. It meant being ready to sacrifice self, friends, or any other thing to accomplish a just cause. But right now, it meant sorrow. Sorrow on a damp cool fall day, with no other friends present, or welcome. He had come alone, and now that he was here, did not regret it. There was only one other person who could have ever shared this moment, and Faust had left this world to travel the shadow lands long before she had. Other than Mistress Aileen, Miller was now the last of the fated group that still traveled in the lands of the living.
He slowly released the stone, turning to take up his meager possessions. The saddlebag was newly made, its stitching rubbed roughly against his bare hand. His heavy carrying sack made the sound of a hundred mismatched things being roughly awoken from their silence. Even his saddle had the look of new craftsmanship, as it perched on the back of a kind gentle riding mare.
Miller had learned that on these types of journeys, gear would fail, rope would break, and knives would grow dull. He expected two months of travel, but prepared for a year. Again, as he began fastening his saddle bags and sack to the mare, he recited the litany of things that would kill him. Each word separated by a second of hesitation, and a vision of when his fate would occur.
"Burned Alive, Starvation, Dehydration, Falling from the horse, Robbery, Poison, Betrayal..."
And if he was lucky enough to finish his journey, and arrive intact, he continued the litany...
He climbed into the saddle and grasped the reigns, slowly urging the brown mare forward. The mare began her quick walk from the silent clearing, propelling Miller from his peaceful place of rest toward the small village of Ingalls, or perhaps, toward that final black door.
Miller's throat grew tight, and his voice began to shake as he finished his litany of fears with the one doom that certainly awaited him in the end, yet he could never escape. He resisted saying that name for a long as he could. Fear, love, gratitude, and despair joined in his final fear. His hands quietly shook as he recited that name.
He guided his mare toward Clockshire, passing quietly over the damp grass and onto a rutted two-track road. The road seemed to welcome his return. The only sounds that came from the surrounding forest were soothing, and called him to let down his guards just this once and breath in the free air. Miller always enjoyed the first weeks of a long journey. Each day he felt his nerves loosen a small measure. Adding distance between his fragile self and the duties of the order always helped. Once the Order of the White Hand was joined, they were never truly far away. It had sounded like a good idea once, joining the order. He would apprentice to magicians who were masters at their art. He would devote himself to serving the needs of the small people, healing the poor, and feeding the hungry. He would travel the world and learn of new places and tongues. All of this came true, but so did the part that they didn't tell him at first.
The Order of the White Hand served small people with small deeds relentlessly, almost as if their very lives depended upon it. Indeed, they did. Apprentices were taught to sojourn into the wilds, into the towns, and into the cities bringing helping hands and small magics to sooth the hurts of the world. The masters of the White Hand devoted their lives to healing the world itself. They removed wounds from the spirit lands within the earth, and tried desperately to keep the foundations of the world from cracking and tearing themselves apart.
But that was where the horror lived. Creatures crawled within those cracks. They sometimes snapped open, releasing nightmares into the world that the small people lived upon, ignorant of their danger. The ability to travel into these cracks took a toll on a White Hand magicians mind. Soon it was apparent what the bad part of the deal was. Masters of the White Hand went mad, one and all. Their secret and hidden magic allowed them to live for a hundred lifetimes, but each lifetime took a toll. They became less and less human, and as Miller watched this happen, he became less and less interested in acquiring his own Master's ring. Small good deeds kept the madness at bay, just a little bit, but not enough.
He knew about this madness first hand. His short time with Mistress Sword taught him much of cruelty. He still awoke hearing her laughter, sweating with fear, yet yearning for her company for just one more night, ashamed. Mistress Sword was a sadist, she was evil and worse yet, she was chaotic and unpredictable. Miller had no idea how he ever became lucky enough to leave Mistress Sword's service and join the service of Mistress Aileen. The politics of the masters were mind boggling. He suspected some deal making within the two rival cabals changed his allegiance. He was never informed or consulted until the decision had been made.
Three days of travel passed pleasantly. Light fall rains decorated the sky as he moved through these familiar lands where he had not trod upon for two years. Early in the evening, as the moon began to rise, painting the horizon in a welcoming orange, he felt the call of the ring.
The silver ring lay upon his right index finger. Its large outer surface reflected the dusk's light. It pulsed with the warning he had embedded into its core. She was preparing to contact him, to expose his inner hidden thoughts, and to speak directly to his awoken mind. It scared the hell out of him. Mistress Aileen's ability to reach out from across the miles and simply pluck his consciousness away from his body and into a spirit medium terrified him. Some day, she might pluck out his spirit, and never return it.
Some day, she will go mad like all of the rest.
The first time Mistress Aileen used this method to speak with him, he fell off of his horse. He limped for two days. His enchanting and crafting skills were sufficient to embed an alerting rune into his apprentice ring. Now he would receive a few seconds notice before she came to him. Well, at least she normally asked for his attention instead of simply commanded it. How polite.
So he moved into the meditation position, the one that Mistress Aileen had taught him those many years ago, and waited. A few seconds later her voice came like a whisper from the corners of his mind. It beckoned him, "Miller... Miller... Answer me please, Miller... I have news... Please tell me if you are in need... Miller..."
He allowed his consciousness to mingle with the spell. It was like drinking warm syrup, then bathing in it. It covered all of his senses, yet left him aware of his place in the world. He opened his senses and saw the Mistress. She came to him wearing the same black lacy dress that she always favored. Her face looked well rested; thank the Gods old and new. Her eyes danced with the smallest bite of impatience.
Miller spoke, "Mistress, I hear your call."
"Excellent!" Her smile broadened her face into a welcome. "How is your progress toward Ingalls? Have there been any problems?"
"No, it's been quiet so far. I had expected to see some strangeness near the ruins when I went by, but it is still completely deserted."
"Did you go in?" Her eyes narrowed when she asked this simple question. After a moment of silence, she resumed. "No, of course not. Staying clear of the pit was wise."
Miller gave her a gentle smile. "I did talk to a few of the remaining locals. They tell me that they have not seen any of the creatures, nor have they had any occult events. They stay clear in any case. Patrols come by once or twice a month from the new local lord just to check on things. So far, so good."
The remainder of the conversation passed quickly. He updated her on his progress, and she yet again praised his crafting skills, stating that his latest spell would be of great utility putting down the current invasion, attack, escalation from the beyond. She talked about conclave politics, and the impending trials of Master December. Miller tried his best to avoid being involved in the politics, and absolutely avoided anything involving a trial. This new threat, mole-creatures of all things, had inflicted damage upon the populace, so he spent time listening intently for news of their activities.
Mole-creatures, what a stupid name. That's what happens when you let the cook name the strange nightmare creatures that burrow in from beyond and try to eat you during the night.
The greater fear is the parasites they seem to have brought with them. The bugs swarmed into your blood, and took your consciousness and soul, whatever that was. Luckily Miller had come up with a better solution to that problem. When he arrived at Homes Hearth, the priestesses would be glad to hear him out, no matter how repugnant his allegiance was. Mistress Aileen ended the conversation after telling him to expect her next contact in 10 days. She was eager to hear news from Clockshire. She seemed to love that place as it was never far from her thoughts, yet it had always brought her pain and hurt. But Faust was buried there.
Miller arrived in Clockshire six days later. The previous sunny happy days had yielded to oppressive grey skies that would periodically subjugate him to its cold rain. He went directly to Durmitt's Inn. It was a low building, where new additions had been added over the generations. It had a feeling of uncontrolled sprawl and of an innkeeper's declining family fortune. The remains of an old clock-tower jutted out from the left of the building, like a memory of much grander and happier days. Now it was covered in ivy, the white paint was peeling, and the clock hands had stopped moving long ago. Now the tower's shadow kept better time.
He rode the mare up to the front of the inn where a boy stood waiting for customers. This was a new boy. Where was the old one? Hopefully he had simply grown older and moved onto an apprenticeship. But bad things always happened, especially here.
The boy turned and scrambled quickly to take the reins. His dirty trousers and slight horse-dung smell identified him as the boy that he wanted. "Feed her, water her, and clean her hooves. We leave after breakfast on the morrow".
"Aye sir", he beamed up at Miller, peering through an unruly mop of dirty black hair. "She is a beauty she is, I'll take fine care of her."
Miller reached into his first pouch, the one that typically got robbed, and retrieved a large copper coin. Then he reached back and fetched a second. "This coin is for your Inn's fee, but this other coin is for you. I love this horse, so you have to tell me if anyone shows a fancy or interest in her. Understand? I want to know if anyone has plans for my beauty."
The boy smiled broadly. An extra copper just for him was a rarity. "Aye sir! I'll check on her every hour I will!" he declared as he slide one of the coins into a hidden pocket. The boy led the mare behind the inn to stable yard. Mistress Aileen had gifted him the horse the day before he departed. He hadn't even named it yet. Miller had lost too many good horses to befriend them now. These journeys tended to reduce their life spans. Miller had begun sending them to pasture if they survived two trips. So far, he only had one horse in his pasture. He wanted another.
But someone needed to keep an eye on the horse, and especially on any people who might be interested in it. Those people would be interested in him as well. He needed as much lead time as he could gather. When he ran, he intended to be out of harm's way before anyone could intervene.
Miller's thought of horses. He thought of becoming a rancher in some deserted part of the world far away from White Hand politics and invading monsters from cracks within the world. Those day dreams were quickly interrupted as he entered the main room of Durmitt's Inn.
Six tables had pairs of farmers sitting at them, chatting about crops, weather, and the normal things that farmers discussed over a pint of mediocre ale. But the center table was full of trouble. Four men sat at the long table. The far half of the table was covered with gear. War gear, raiding gear, banditry gear, it all lay tumbled into a pile. There were things to help you kill people or to avoid being killed, and there was a lot of it. Two long swords lay atop a pile of boiled leather armor. A helmet sat on an empty chair. Miller spotted chain mail, a war hammer, and three packs of camping gear, clothing, and discarded bags filled with unknown goods. The four men looked like they had been on the trail for a few weeks. Beards had started to grow on three of them. One had a beard that he may have been growing since his whiskers started to come in twenty years ago. Four long bows, along with their arrow quivers, leaned against the wall within easy reach of these dangerous men.
Miller paused in his steps. He knew of these types of men. Protectors. They were the self-sworn enemies of the White Hand. What were they doing here? Were they looking for him? This is going to go badly. He began his quiet turn to exit the room, and hopefully ride far away, when he was interrupted. As he slowly turned, his gaze met the eyes of the long bearded man. Those were cold eyes, hunter's eyes, killer's eyes.
A loud cry leaped from behind the bar.
"Miller! You're back!"
A delighted young woman, dressed in her best green wenchery tip-gathering low cut ensemble rushed toward him. Her smile shined beneath long golden hair. Oh, if this could happen on any other day. Miller thought about running for the door, for the horse, for escape. But the die had already been cast. He had been noticed, and the bearded man was taking now his measure.
Birta's embrace was as wild as her voice. She wrapped her arms around his narrow chest, and hugged him close, giggling with delight.
"It's been years! Are you stopping by to see little Birta?" Her smiles and giggle filled the room, except the part with the armed men, that was.
Miller stepped back, and only partially feigned a broad smile and his own mischievous grin. A nervous pitch crept into his voice as he responded. "Brita! How you've grown! And you are so... Beautiful!" He pulled her into his arms while stepping toward the outer door. "Let's catch up out here." If only this could be a simple welcome. If only the Protectors weren't here. She was fetching, soft, curvy, and happy to see him. If only...
Brita was not controlled so easily. She squeaked in delight, and spun to the room filled with customers. "Miller is a hero! so keep away! While he is in town, he is all mine! He was at the temple when the trouble happened you know. He was there when the evil came, in the fight to the last he was! A hero, that's my Miller."
Miller was shocked. Brita had just given everything away, for no other reason than to brag to her fellow townsmen. But she had clearly not factored in the Protectors in the room. "Aw Hell!"
Four chairs slid out from the long table as the Protectors began fetching their bows and swords. The bearded man wasted no time. He simply grabbed the eating knife on the table in front of him with one hand, and used the other to vault over the table, landing close to Miller. Miller bolted to the door. His hand seized the door handle and pulled, but not quickly enough. The bearded man seized him by the shirt and threw him against the door frame.
Pain drove into his left shoulder blade where the oaken frame cut into his back. The dinner knife flashed as it sped toward his throat. The hairy arm propelled it forward in a killing strike. Miller felt the blade cut quickly across his neck artery, sliding coldly away, lessened by the power of an enchantment. Only a slight dribble of blood could be felt. Miller had prepared for this journey as only an enchanter could. Small wards and protections decorated his bracelets, and may have just saved his life by slowing that dull knife.
Three arcane words of channeling screamed from Miller's throat. As he finished the words, he ducked his head away and closed his eyes. Even with his eyes closed, a fury of light burned through. Screams of pain and confusion filled the inn as the burst of light erupted, instantly blinding any who viewed it. Patrons near it were flung from their seats as it sprung into their midst. Miller ignored the spots swimming in front of him and sprinted out the door.
He covered forty feet to the back stables quicker than he had imagined. The Protectors emerged from the Inn door, staggering and shading their eyes as they recovered. Miller ran to his still-saddled mare and climbed on. The boy tending the horse gave Miller a surprised look at he pointed toward the panicked owner and his panicked horse.
"What are you doing? Hey! I was just getting ready to..."
The boy's words were lost as Miller dug his heels into the horse, and it leaped forward. Miller steered the horse through the gate that he had never closed. He avoided the normal trail that passed in front of the Inn, and rode purposefully into the trees.
An arrow shot by him, so close he could see the color of the fetching. Black. Miller prayed to the Old Gods, the New Gods, and any other supernatural force that might help him. Don't let them have mage arrows, oh please, don't let them have mage arrows. Bear god, grant me protection in your lands. Felicitous, goddess of love, grant me escape. I have served you once, or at least, served your servants. He hoped that the goddess continued to count Mistress Aileen among her servants. But Miller doubted it.
The horse galloped on, dodging trees and bushes alike. Yells filled the woods behind him as he urged the horse forward. Miller guided to horse onto an old single wide track. He knew that if he didn't do something crafty soon he would be caught, and killed.
Protectors. Who in the hells are they protecting anyway? The mole-men had gone. The magical storms had stopped. Why are the Protectors even still around? Miller used to like the Protectors. They tended to keep the roads clean of banditry when they were in the area. The people spoke highly their kind deeds as well. If only they were not so dedicated to inserting an arrow into his brain right now, they could have gotten along quite well. Oh yeah, they were protecting the people from the White Hand, from him.
The horse took advantage of the open trail and began to gallop with new energy. Miller allowed the horse to pick its own route as he began the chants that would gather magical forces. His entire body jarred over and over again as the horse pounded down the trail. Magical words became mixed up with the smashing of his teeth, and at least one tongue bite. Once through the rite, failure. Twice through the rite, failure.
He emerged from the forest at a mad gallop. He sped by a small chest-high gravestone, with moss growing on its top, and small violet flowers around its base. The horse was beginning to breath hard has he looked upon the reason for this slight deviation to Clockshire. Faust's grave stared back at him, reminding him of the consequences that distraction brought.
Well, if anyone would understand such a brief meeting, it would have been Faust.
While Miller had intended to spend some time near his grave, he had not intended to join him beyond the final black door, at least not today. He urged the mare onward. The mare's breathing was heavy as she struggled up a bright green hill. The short grass and the remains of a shepherd's campfire told him what he would find on the other side of this hill. Nothing. A clear field for arrow fire. Death.
The arrows began again. The horse screamed as an arrow shot into his saddle bags. The shaft must have penetrated into the poor animal. His spell craft had failed him when faced with a galloping horse and a panicked voice. The enchantments were helping but they would not save him. He needed a new idea. He needed something fast.
But there was one magic that he knew but it could get out of control. He hated it. It terrified him. It killed and killed and killed. He was far enough from the Inn. There was no shepherd to consume, nor a flock to be wasted. He could take a chance.
Miller reared the mare, turning it back toward the Protectors. He raised his hand in the gesture of elemental linking and steeled his courage. In his magical consciousness, he connected the five points of the world and summoned. Miller spoke the word. The word he knew so well.
Fire erupted across the hill. Moments before the hill stood green and full of life, now it was a blackening burning chaos. Flames leaped upward many feet, and smoke filled the air. Miller turned the mare and urged it to continue with the retreat. The fire was frightening, but it would burn out quickly on this grassy hill. Incredibly dangerous and brave foes could simply ride through it with minimal threat. It was large enough to be impressive, two hundred feet wide and twenty feed deep. The Protectors didn't continue through. They turned their horses and quickly rode back into the woods.
That was the wrong direction. Never run from fire into the woods. Other White Hand practitioners would not hesitate to remove an entire forest to end a few Protectors.
But they would be safe enough from Miller. The grass would not hold the fire, and even if it did, it wasn't dry enough to spread. He hated using it. He hated the damage it could do. He hated that it could get out of control. He hated the way the hill would blacken for most of a year. He hated the fact that when he finally passed through the final black door, it most likely be fire that sent him there.
Fire was Mistress's Sword weapon. That was the core reason that Miller feared it. Mistress Sword despised him now, and she had a way of evening scores. That is why he knew the fire school so well, even when he hated it. Fire was his doom. Fire was the first item in his final litany. He needed to know it well.
But now he had another doom to worry about. He mentally added another to his ever-growing list.
Killed by an inopportune word, spoken by a girl who only wanted a kiss.
Miller smiled a bit as he trotted away. If I am going to go through the final black door, then I could hardly come up with a better way. There had been days that he would embrace such an end. Today was not one of those days.
The fire could only delay the Protectors, not eliminate them. He rode on, paying attention his mare's developing limp. Ingalls lay only a week away by road. This horse would need some help soon. His quicker pace would get him there in five days. He thought about praying again, after all, the gods had been good to him. But he decided against it. He didn't need to be in their debt any more than he was right now. The gods had a way of asking one to return a favor.
Three miles later, the trail passed in front of a farm. The yard had four chickens in it, a dog, and a woman busily washing the family's cloths in an overflowing tub. Her dark brown hair was decorated with a few strings of gray. She sang as she washed. The symbol of Fellicitus hung from her home. She was true believer then. Perhaps the gods were with him, or at least the goddess was.
An age-blackened barn stood fifty feet behind the house. It was a perfect opportunity. Miller quietly guided the horse around the edge of the farm, and then approached the barn from the back. A large door stood closed against the sunny day. He opened the doors and entered, tying the reigns to a nearby post. Three other curious horses looked at Miller and their new horse-neighbor.
He quietly began unbuckling the saddle and bags. He grabbed the arrow that still protruded from his bag, and gently moved it. The horse pulled its side away from him, but did not scream or panic. Not so deep then.
Miller pulled the knife from his side sheath quickly, while maintaining a hold on the arrow. A few cuts later and the arrow snapped, releasing the weight of his gear onto the floor. A small trickle of blood dripped from the wound. This would not be critical if he could get at it. He could help the horse then be on their way soon, if he could just keep it calm.
Miller began the channeling to calm the horse. Spells of the mind did not come easy to him, but he concentrated, meditated, and continued his slow calming. The mare began to breathe more slowly. She did not panic. Miller felt relief course through his nerves. As he gained some success with this mare, he widened the area of the spell. The other horses stopped fidgeting and began to appear sleepy. After ten minutes, all of the animals in the barn were senseless and asleep.
Miller walked up to the mare, snatching a light wool coat that hung from a beam. Two quick cuts with the knife into the desensitized flank, and the arrow head released its grip. He pulled it from the horse's flank, putting the arrow head into his travel bag. He might need something like that later. Then he began the careful job of cleaning the horse's wound with water and that handy wool coat. Finally, he bound it with a simple spell of body mending. It wasn't the best spell crafting that Miller had ever done, but it was enough to make the horse usable again.
Once his mind-channeling stopped, all of the horses began to awaken. He picked up the blanket, saddle, and bags, placing them gently on the mare's back. He dried the last bit of water left from the wash, then returned the stained wool coat to its peg. Then he slid the saddle onto the horse's back. Ten minutes later Miller was walking the horse to the door. He slid the door open and looked for any watchers. There were none, so he walked from the barn and returned to the trees.
As Miller walked past the corner of the barn he heard a painful cry. His gaze snapped towards the house. The washer woman struggled with someone. Her dog bit into the assailant's arm, flailing wildly in its attempt to remove it from the shoulder. The assailant lifted his other arm and plunged a long broad-bladed knife down into the point where her throat met her shoulders. She slumped, grabbing her bleeding neck, and falling to the ground. He raised his arm with the dog attached to it, and quickly opened the dog's belly from beneath. Organs rained down from the poor loyal beast's chest, and decorated the ground with guts. The bearded man looked up from the dying dog, toward the barn, toward Miller.
He had taken too long. The Protectors had found him. Miller pulled himself into the saddle, and screamed at the horse to run.