Andir set out that evening in search of a monster.
He had learned, as all children must, that adults are capricious with the truth. His parents seemed to believe that Andir’s age precluded any serious disclosure of why the world worked as it did. His persistent questions were most often met with a sigh and a tired "because." If he caught them in a particularly dark mood, they would answer his question with a wry story invented on the spot and see how long it took Andir to get the joke. For the bulk of his ten years, Andir had believed his father’s tale of the uncharacteristically kind Ghôl who delivered presents to obedient children on winter’s longest night. Their jokes grew increasingly bitter as the boy grew older; his parents were simple people who believed that an active mind led to nothing but laziness. Far better to bring honor to the King through hard work.
Over the years Andir began to wonder how much of what he knew was true. Age was not a guarantee of wisdom, honesty or kindness. If adults could lie or joke about some things, what was to stop them from lying about the rest? So many things he took for granted might be half-truths, or even preposterous fantasies. A precocious child in many respects, Andir found this notion depressing.
He considered what he knew - or thought he knew - of recent history. Some of the people in his village were veterans of the Great War, and the rest spoke of it so often one might be forgiven for thinking it had ended sixty days ago rather than sixty years. In light of Andir’s developing skepticism, many of the tales told about the war seemed suspect. Hordes of reanimated dead defeated by small, ragged groups of mercenaries and volunteers? A severed head that spoke, lies slipping through its lips to an audience that would soon be dead? Alric, then simply a wizard of immense power and not a King, plotting and fighting against the walking dead without so much as a scratch on his chin from Balor’s rotting armies? Balor himself, with a legion of creatures bound to him through sorcery and intimidation, unable to stop Alric from lopping off his head? And Soulblighter - the towering, mad thing who cut off his own face and tore out his own heart as part of a ritual too dark to speak of?
None of it seemed especially believable, although the adults still spoke of Soulblighter in hushed tones; according to the stories, no one had ever discovered what became of him. Andir was now inclined to dismiss this as superstition, but chose to reserve judgment until he could learn more about the war. So he set his sights on a goal closer to home: learning the truth about the caves in the forest near his village.
The forest was full of dead trees which had a habit of falling over and killing things. Knowing this, his mother told stories of a terrifying blur of claws and fangs that lurked in caves and fed on young boys.
Andir suspected the story was false and planned to disprove it by examining the caves; he felt certain that he would find them as harmless and empty as his parents’ words of caution. Armed with this knowledge, he might return home and convince his parents that he was mature enough to learn the truth about the world, and to have his questions treated with respect. If they must tell him stories, he wanted only to hear true stories. And stories of monsters weren’t true.
He slipped quietly from his family’s cottage late one evening, darting between houses and trees, trying not to be seen by other villagers who might order him back home. Once he cleared the village he had a straight run across a jade plain that ended about a mile from the edge of the forest. He could no longer see the sun, but enough light penetrated the tightly-clustered tree trunks to keep him moving.
He picked his way carefully between trees in the forest. It seemed that every other trunk was whitened and papery; one fell over when he leaned on it to catch his breath. Andir remembered stories of the Fallen Lord Shiver killing any tree she brushed as she and her army marched toward Madrigal. Again he wondered how true that tale was.
He ripped large strips of bark off the living trees to mark his passage and kept moving towards the heart of the forest. By the time he found the first cave, night had crept up behind him, obliterating even the silhouettes of the trees. Steeling himself, he stepped inside and shuffled forward.
The cave was damp with a roof that sloped gently downward to its end. After ten feet he had to bend down; after twenty he had to sit down. He smiled. If there were any beasts in the cave, they were so small as to be harmless - even to a child. Andir knew that his mother had concocted a story to keep him out of harm’s way; he could understand and appreciate her concern but also felt certain that his mother was jumping at shadows. He had learned the truth and it had not hurt him.
Andir crawled out into the night air and began walking back home. He could not seem to find the last tree he had marked. He stumbled through brush and over thick roots for perhaps thirty minutes before he saw the crow.
Although in perfect darkness, the black bird somehow stood out. Its feathers were a glistening, oily black that seemed to pulse with some inner turbulence. The bird seemed to look past him rather than at him. Curious, Andir stepped toward it.
The bird hopped away. Andir followed. He tripped on a root and fell against a fallen willow branch. The noise he made must have drowned out the rustle of another bird’s wings, for when he picked himself up there were two crows before him. Both stared directly at him. Their eyes moved with the same sinuous, smoky motion as their feathers.
Andir understood that these were no ordinary birds, but had a sudden urge to go home and wait until daylight before returning to study them. He stepped backwards, eyes on the two crows. They remained motionless. He turned around, intending to go back to the clearing he’d passed about twenty feet back and choose another path. He stopped.
Andir stood within a group of crows arranged in a perfect circle.
He felt sweat run down the side of his face. The crows took baby-steps forward, closing in almost imperceptibly. Andir squatted low and ran his hand over the ground, trying to find a fallen branch with which to shoo them away. A crow pecked at his hand and he swung his arm aloft in self-defense. Andir felt an ugly numbness spill down from his upraised arm into the rest of his body, and then his muscles gave way and he fell to the floor of the forest. Andir felt as though all the skin on his body was crumbling like paper consumed by fire.
Andir saw a tall man, smiling so hard it almost seemed as though he had no lips. There was a grotesque scar running down his bare chest. Andir knew his name from the stories, and might have said it aloud had his tongue still worked.
And ... something else, behind him. Something nameless for a thousand years.
Andir’s final insight was that all stories contained little truths. Larger truths, like that of the scarred presence towering over him, could never be adequately conveyed in a tale.
He blinked and the monster was gone. And the crows were on him.
He might have eventually seen the ceiling of the night dissolve into daylight and the crows rise in a solid black mass towards the blue sky, hovering like a malevolent angel with far too many wings.
Except his eyes were long gone by that point.
The other things, creatures Andir had no name for, dashed through the countryside for the first time in centuries, toward a village alive with the sounds of roosters and two parents wondering where their child had gone off to at such an early hour.
Andir had learned, as all children eventually must, that there was a little hideous truth in every monster story. And the horde that followed the crows knew that the best stories deserve a second telling.
- Ghôls: A bestial race of knuckle walkers that served the Dark during the Great War. Inhabiting the same hills and mountains as the Dwarves, Ghôls have been in conflict with that race for as long as they have known one another. It is they alone who remember the names of the dark gods. ↩
- Alric: An Avatara of years past, Alric is the only surviving member of the Nine sorcerers who opposed the Fallen Lords during the Great War. Alric reclaimed his throne after defeating Balor. He has spent the last sixty years rebuilding the Province. ↩
- The Head: A severed head animated by its own arcane magic, it was discovered buried under tons of sand and rock and claimed to be one of Balor's ancient enemies. Providing the Nine with dubious advice, this enigmatic being sowed strife among the Nine, resulting in their downfall before vanishing again into the mists of history. ↩
- Balor: Once known as Connacht, great hero of the Wind Age, Balor returned wearing the mantle of the Leveler to lead the armies of the Dark during the Great War. Chief among the Fallen Lords, he fell in battle with Alric at his fortress in Rhi'anon, and his head was cast into the Great Devoid to ensure that he would never return. ↩
- Soulblighter: Balor's second in command during the Great War. Arguably the most dangerous of the Fallen Lords, his cruelty and ambition knew no bounds. Many think that he was once Damas, one of Connacht's lieutenants. ↩
- Madrigal: A city in the northwest of the Province, Madrigal was the site of a great battle between Rabican and Shiver during the Great War. Though it was successfully defended by the Light for most of the war, internal strife and the crushing weight of the Dark armies caused its downfall only weeks before the war finally ended. ↩