Chapter 15: Line
Almonihah entered the valley of the Lost Sea late in the spring. He saw now, as he had not fully seen before, just how wondrous of a place it was, an untouched wilderness with a bewildering variety of life. He had to remind himself that some of those forms of life might want to eat him as he descended from the mountains into the valley. Just because he appreciated them didn’t mean they couldn’t be deadly.
It was the scent that first warned him of danger. Similar to his wolf friends he had spent last spring with, but somehow subtly wrong. Instantly, Almonihah was on alert, all his senses straining to find the source of danger and a place of safety.
There! A flash of movement, a soft footfall. He was being followed. He drew Zithrandrak and kept walking forward, looking for some kind of shelter in the forest. He was not equipped to fight a pack of fell-wolves. It was odd for such a pack to be here… but the half-dragon didn’t have time to think about why, just how he was going to live.
He slowly accelerated his pace, and he could hear and smell and… sense, somehow, the fell-wolves shift to follow him. They were slowly closing their trap, moving to flank and eventually surround him.
There! Some thicker underbrush, the kind that he might be able to shake them in. He suddenly broke into a sprint and dove into the brush. Almonihah didn’t slow, using what he had learned over the past year to weave his way through the dense vegetation. He could tell that the fell-wolves were having trouble keeping up with him, but he couldn’t count on that lasting.
For example, he could run out of the brush into a clearing. He didn’t have to glance back to tell that the beasts weren’t far behind him, so the half-dragon pushed himself to the utmost to cross the clearing before they reached it.
Almonihah just barely made it. Unfortunately, the underbrush wasn’t as thick on the other side, so he doubted he would be able to keep ahead of them for long.
He was quite surprised when he put his hand on a tree to push off of and instead fell into it.
Once he picked himself up off of the ground and looked around, he saw that the tree was much bigger on the inside than the outside. The interior reminded him of some kind of shrine, but one that had been grown rather than built. He could see outside through several archways which seemed to be somehow naturally formed by the tree. Almonihah started when he saw that there were fell-wolves prowling around outside, but it quickly became clear that they didn’t realize the arches were there.
Now that he had a bit of time to calm down, the half-dragon thought he knew more or less what this was. He’d heard stories about sacred places of Naishia hidden in the wilderness—valleys that could only be entered once, groves hidden behind waterfalls, and so on. No one knew if they were the work of long-dead Druids, or if Naishia herself had created them as refuges for her followers in their times of need. Certainly this one was serving him as such right now.
The fell-wolves didn’t seem to be giving up easily, though. They were sniffing all around the perimeter of the tree, trying to figure out why his trail ended right at its edge. From what he knew of fell-wolves, it might be all day before they gave up and hunted for easier prey. He was kind of surprised to feel a little bit of pity for them. Their ancestors had once been like other wolves, like the ones he had run with, but now they were… twisted. Almonihah wondered what had happened to them. Something to do with Jivenesh, no doubt.
Now, though, what he had to worry about was whether or not he was going to sit here all day waiting for them to go. If he had a bow, he’d be able to convince them to leave fairly quickly from his unassailable position, but his bow was back with the Griffon Tribe. And it wasn’t like there was going to be a bow just lying around here or anything.
Almonihah blinked. Or maybe there would be. Not only a bow, but a quiver, were leaning against one of the arches.
He went over to look at them. The quiver looked rather plain, but when he looked inside, it appeared to contain far more arrows than a quiver of its size should be able to. The bow, on the other hand, was a work of art. Its limbs were intricately carved with images of animals and forests. The one image that was repeated the most frequently was a unicorn rampant, just like the one that hung from his neck—one of the many symbols for Naishia.
Almonihah murmured a quiet thanks to Her as he picked up the bow and nocked an arrow. He slowly pulled back, testing the bow. It had just the right amount of resistance, not so much it was hard to aim, but not so little that he couldn’t apply his full strength to it.
He carefully aimed at one of the fell-wolves. He paused for a moment, unsure of whether or not the arrow would go through or if he’d find the inside of the arches as solid as they seemed to the beasts outside, but then shrugged mentally and decided to loose his arrow anyway.
It flew from the bow with even greater speed than his strength and the pull of the bow could account for. When it struck the fell-wolf, there was a searing flash of light, and the creature collapsed, the fur around the arrow’s fletching singed from whatever magic the bow had imparted to the arrow.
The fell-wolves jumped back from where their fellow had fallen, looking around warily for the source of the threat. Almonihah grunted in satisfaction as he watched them. They still couldn’t see him. He drew another arrow.
It didn’t take long for the beasts to realize that this was a bad place to be. When Almonihah finally stepped out of the tree-shrine, the only fell-wolves in sight were the four he’d felled. Almonihah looked around for a bit, then turned back to the tree and said, a bit gruffly, “Thanks,” before continuing on his way South.
The Northern Ranger Order Headquarters looked pretty much the same as when he had left it, just a few rough log structures in a small clearing in the forest. He’d already passed the sentry, and was headed toward the cabin that was Commander Imlloen’s ‘office’.
The elf commander looked up as Almonihah entered. “Almonihah,” he said in greeting.
“Commander,” he responded.
“Are you here to do better than your old lizard of a teacher at reporting in?”
Almonihah grunted in acknowledgement of the joke. “That, and join th’ Line.”
Imlloen was silent for a moment, looking at the half-dragon. “Well, we could certainly use you,” he finally said.
The elf started pulling out some pieces of paper and looking at the map on his wall. “We’re stretched thin right now, Almonihah. I won’t lie to you. It’s been a hard year, like something has the Madness-Touched all charging out of the Madlands all at once…”
He paused for a moment, then pointed to a dot on the map. “Here,” Imlloen said. “The Ranger assigned to this stretch” he indicated a small part of the red Line next to the dot, “hasn’t been heard from for three weeks. In case you don’t know, that usually means he’s dead.”
The Ranger Commander sighed. “See if you can find him, or what’s left of him, while you’re manning your post. A human by the name of Lonan. Wears some boiled leather, carries an ax and a bow.”
Almonihah nodded. “Anything else?”
“Go talk to Kina. You look like you need some equipment replaced.”
Almonihah nodded again. After a moment of silence, he turned to leave. He heard Imlloen get up and open something behind him.
“Almonihah,” he called out.
The half-dragon turned just in time to see a shirt of chain mail flying at him. He instinctively caught it.
“Put that on. Not all of us want to see so much of your scales.”
Almonihah grunted in acknowledgement, then turned to leave again. He looked at the mail shirt as he did so. It seemed too small to fit him, but… he tried anyway. He was rather surprised to find it slip on easily, almost like it was made of cloth. Examining it, he realized it was forged not of well-polished steel as he first had thought, but of mithril.
“Too bright,” he muttered to himself—and was startled to see the brilliant links fade until they were even duller than the leather of his pants. He dropped the corner he was holding and noted that it didn’t even clink as it hit his scales. Almonihah glanced back over his shoulder, as if to ask Imlloen if he knew what he’d given away, but then just grunted and made his way to the quartermaster’s cabin. There was no way the elf had given something like this to him by accident.
The quartermaster gave Almonihah’s new armor on odd look, but other than that just gave him the equipment he asked for. More arrows, a leather shirt to go over his armor, a new pack, waterskin, a few other little necessities. He also picked up a new sword, a plain, serviceable blade, to replace the one he’d left with the Griffon Tribe. Then, once he felt ready, he set off to his post.
It took three days to reach the general area he was supposed to watch. It was a pass in the mountains that edged this part of the Madlands, high enough to be only warm instead of hot, even this far south. An important post, where many of the Javni’Tolkhrah who were wandering north would go. That was probably how Lonan had died… if the Javni’Tolkhrah were more active than usual this year, this area would have been hit hard. Of course, it was quiet right now…
Almonihah narrowed his eyes. It was too quiet. There weren’t even the normal animal noises he’d expect in a wooded area like this.
Slowly, he pulled out his bow and knocked an arrow. Then the half-dragon cautiously advanced, his senses alert for the slightest hint of trouble. His first hint was the softest hint of a sound, so quiet it was barely there. Almonihah gave no sign he heard it save for a slow rotation of his head.
There it was. A flash of movement seen out of the corner of his eye. The thing was stalking him. Almonihah held still, and so did it. He slowly pulled back on his bow. Then suddenly he snapped erect and fired off an arrow at the same moment the creature jumped at him.
He didn’t quite get out of its way in time, and grunted a bit as he felt the impact on his shoulder. He was able to twist away instead of getting knocked over, however, and drew Zithrandrak as he turned to face the beast. He soon saw there was no need. The Javni’Tolkhrah, which he now saw was some sort of giant wolf-thing with a scorpion tail and huge claws on its feet, was twitching on the ground, an arrow buried in its eye. Faint wisps of steam rose from the socket, a testament to the powerful magic the bow had bestowed on the arrow. Just to be sure, Almonihah stabbed Zithrandrak through the thing’s head. It stopped twitching.
That done, Almonihah slowly searched around the area in case there were other Javni’Tolkhrah around. He doubted it, but it was better to be cautious than dead. He didn’t see any signs of other monsters, but he did stumble across an old campsite. Following some tracks from the camp led him to Lonan… or what was left of him.
One glance was enough to tell him it wasn’t the wolf-thing that had gotten to him. The kill was old, but no scavengers had dared touch him with the taint of Jivenesh about. Even decay seemed slow to set in. The tracks gave away the time, however—more than a week, if Zrathanzon had taught him anything about reading such things. What was clear, however, was that it was a much larger beast that had killed the other Ranger. From the tracks, Almonihah could tell it had gone north… of course.
The half-dragon frowned. He was faced with a dilemma here. There was an obviously powerful Javni’Tolkhrah headed north. It had at least a week’s head start on him. He had little doubt he could catch up in time, but it would take him away from the Line…
Almonihah sighed. He had to stay here. Whatever that creature did, it would be worse if this pass was open for another three weeks or however long it would take him to hunt it down and then get back. All kinds of Javni’Tolkhrah could slip through in that time. He’d just have to hope another Ranger got to it before it managed to find its way into populated lands. At least it was loose in the Lost Sea area instead of Khinet.
The half-dragon growled a bit in frustration as he turned back south. He couldn’t worry about that now. His job was to make sure nothing else got through.
Almonihah wasn’t sure how many days it was before the first Ranger courier came by. It must have been weeks, though. He’d fallen so quickly into a routine that he’d lost track of time. You wouldn’t think that living in constant fear for your life, waking and sleeping, could become routine, but it had. It was still simultaneously terrifying and exciting at times, but somehow that was part of the routine, too.
Almonihah reported Lonan’s death, as well as the number of Javni’Tolkhrah he’d killed, to the courier. He said no when the courier asked if he needed a relief, and his only request when the courier asked what supplies he needed was for more arrows. The Ranger courier pulled a bundle of arrows out of his pack and handed them to Almonihah, and then was on his way.
The time passed swiftly. Seasons came and went, but they seemed not to matter so much this far south. Sometimes snow would be further down the mountainsides, and sometimes it was further up or just gone, but Almonihah paid it little mind. Hunting the Javni’Tolkhrah took almost all his concentration.
One thing the half-dragon found interesting was just how literal the Line was. He could tell the instant he stepped into the Madlands—there was a palpable difference in the air, in the light, in… everything. It was hard to put a claw on exactly what was so different, but it was a difference that he couldn’t miss.
At first, he stayed well away from the Madlands, even letting Javni’Tolkhrah who he’d been pursuing go if they crossed the Line. Then there was one who’d injured him that he just couldn’t let go. Once he brought it down, he realized he’d been in the Madlands for several minutes. Almonihah quickly returned to the other side of the Line, but not before he started thinking.
The Rangers had few tales of what went on in the Madlands—just what Falloen Surebow had learned in his time crossing them so many years ago, combined with a few observations from Rangers on the edges. They knew that normal animals that wandered south eventually came back north as twisted monstrosities. They knew that there was something… wrong about the very air and ground in the Madlands. Beyond that, there were just the stories from Falloen, about how, deep in the Madlands, even the land under your feet changed from stone to dirt to water.
So Almonihah started straying over the line sometimes. He never went far, and certainly never ate or slept on the other side of the Line, but he explored around a little. He still couldn’t figure out just what was different in the Madlands, just that something was subtly… wrong.
It had been winter once when Almonihah started to feel the fatigue setting in. Being constantly on edge like this took its toll, even for someone used to being watchful. The next time the courier came by, Almonihah asked for a relief. This was exactly why there were always a few Rangers around the Headquarters—no one could stay on the Line forever. It just wore you down.
It was about a month before another Ranger came to relieve Almonihah. The half-dragon was glad enough for the break by then. He’d had a couple of close calls that shouldn’t have been as close as they had been.
Traveling back to the Headquarters was uneventful. He reported to Imlloen when he got back. After the report, Imlloen asked him what he planned to do now.
“Not sure,” the half-dragon replied. “Guess I’ll stay here for a while ‘nd figure out.”