`Alright then, be careful on the road.’ The guard let their small caravan through without much issue. Security was tightened significantly after the recent events that had taken place in and around the Celeran Canopy. The atmosphere had changed completely during the dreary winter that Kaylirr spent mostly bedridden. His wounds were serious and he fell ill for a while. Towards the end of the whole ordeal, he wasn’t quite sure if the voices he’d heard were even real or just hallucinations.
`Good thing we found another job on the way to Larania, right, lad?’ Sairoc was as optimistic as always. The caravan they were guarding this time around was carrying a lot less than the previous ones, but it was only the two of them now. They disbanded their mercenary company and took their savings to go towards the Zargahal Mountains in the east. Rumor had it that a guide in Larania, a small elven settlement on the outskirts of the Celeran Canopy, was willing to bring people to an entrance to the dwarven mountains. Sairoc had never been there before and there was talk of strange evils wandering the forests. They were lucky enough to find a merchant that was heading in the same direction and they offered their services in return for pay. They were hobbling alongside the cart as the rain that had been pestering them all morning slowly started to dissipate. The sun peeked through the clouds and before noon arrived, the weather had turned into a sunny spring day. `So what brings you young folk to Larania, then?’ the old merchant asked.
`I got a mate in the mountains that I haven’t seen in a while, I’m going to see if he’s still kicking.’ Sairoc replied. Their horses were keeping pace with the merchant’s wagon.
`I see, that’s mighty brave of you all, considering the dangers lurking right now.’
Sairoc laughed. `Dangers have to wake up pretty early to get us down, don’t you worry about us now, old man.’ He let out a deep sigh. `Besides, we’ve got important matters to discuss, so we can’t sit on our asses and wait for the world to become peaceful.’
The old man chuckled. `It’s always dangerous, no matter how long you wait.’
`Ain’t that the truth.’
Kaylirr had stayed silent throughout the exchange. He still wasn’t feeling his best, but he was well enough to travel. He hoped that his recovery would continue on their way to the mountains, which was quite a journey. By the time they’d reach the dwarven stronghold inside, he hoped his wounds would have mostly healed. The itching was killing him, though. The strange feeling of metal on his flesh was something he hadn’t quite gotten used to yet. Against his own advice, Sairoc had continued to work on the metal lantern construction that he had talked about and this was now dangling from the metal frame on his arm. There was some oil and a wick in the lantern, but Kaylirr wasn’t quite sure what the point of it all was. At least Sairoc designed it in such a way that the lantern could be removed and replaced with something else. It was honestly quite a well-designed system, with latches and hooks, but he would never dare to admit it to the dwarf. He was already way too proud of what he had made.
Evening came all too quickly and they set up camp on the side of the road. They were still far enough out from the forest to not be too worried, but they’d have to take watches just to be safe. With only two of them, that meant they were facing a couple of short nights.
The merchant invited them to sit with him for dinner and they talked about the local trade routes for a while before the merchant and Sairoc went to sleep. Kaylirr sat next to the fire while keeping watch. The flames danced in front of his eyes as the pain from losing his arm flashed through his mind. He kept thinking back to that moment. The voices in his head, the burning pain of losing his arm and then the strange meeting he had in the forest. Some of it still felt like he had hallucinated it, but there were too many weird things going on for him to be certain.
As he sat there, he closed his eyes for a second and when he opened them again, he was back in that forest clearing.
`Good to see your arm recovering.’ Facing him stood a woman with teal-colored eyes and bright pink hair. She wore it in a braid that reached down to her waist. She was taller than Kaylirr, and he wasn’t exactly short himself. She was holding a candle in one of her hands. On a tree branch above the woman sat an elderly man with skeletal wings.
`I’m sorry, have we met before?’
`Apologies, our souls are unstable right now, so the way you perceive us might change from meeting to meeting,’ the woman smiled. `I’m Elett.’
Kaylirr took a deep breath, slapped his cheeks a couple of times and then opened his eyes again. `So is this a dream, or what’s going on here?’
`We’re in your subconsciousness right now, to be precise. So calling it a dream is somewhat accurate.’ She lifted her hand and the candle melted into wax that dripped down and formed a sword. It was an exact replica of the one that Kaylirr had still on him, the one that they took from the noble after they were raided. Kaylirr apparently wouldn’t let go of it and Sairoc managed to convince the nobleman that they had to keep it. He did have to pay a lot of gold for it though, which is why they were mostly broke right now.
`So you’re that sword, or something like that?’
Elett nodded. `My brother and I were locked into these two blades by an evil creature that lived in the same forest as we did. After he trapped us in here, he sold us to an arcanist who brought us to your capital city. We spent a lot of time in deep slumber, so we don’t know exactly what happened and why we were brought here, but when you unsheathed us, we regained some consciousness. That is also why our thoughts came flooding into you all at once, which I can only apologize for.’
Kaylirr nodded. `That sure wasn’t great, but I suppose that wasn’t your fault then.’ He pondered for a second. `The last time we met, you said something about four locks, what is that all about?’
`Ah, that is a very good question indeed. You see, we were locked into these swords by very powerful magic. This magical spell involves four locks. Those four locks can be destroyed individually. If you do so, we’ll regain our freedom.’
`And how do I do that?’
The woman sighed and sat down on the forest floor, cross legged. The ground around her started growing all sorts of small flowers, and vines started enveloping her lower body. `I don’t know.’
Silence filled the clearing for a while, before she spoke again. `All I know is that these blades were forged by a dwarven blacksmith who lives deep in the mountains at the edge of the world.’
`Do you mean the Zargahal Mountains?’
`I do not know what these Zargahal Mountains are, but it’s possible. These mountains at the edge of the world are the place where the realm elevator is located. I don’t know if that means anything to you.’
Kaylirr thought for a second, but he wasn’t quite knowledgeable about things like magic, realms or even mountains. `We are heading to the Zargahal Mountains to meet up with a buddy of Sairoc.’ He looked at Elett. `Do you know who Sairoc is?’
Elett nodded. `The dwarven companion who is travelling with you. He seems like an extremely capable person.’
Kaylirr smiled. `That he is for sure.’ He sat down as well; if he was in his own subconsciousness, he might as well get comfortable. Strangely enough, his arm didn’t hurt at all right now. `He has a friend who lives there. This friend of his apparently studied at the Arcane Archipelago for a couple years, so we figured he might know more about magical swords.’
Elett seemed to think about this for a second. `That’s not a bad place to start.’ She stared into the distance. `We will speak again in the near future, but for now, please continue healing – you are our hope right now, so we need you to be in a good condition.’
Kaylirr’s vision started to get blurry again and the world around slowly darkened. `What about the lantern?’ he asked.
`That will come in handy later,’ Elett’s voice said before everything went black again. He woke up from Sairoc poking him in the side. `My turn,’ the dwarf said.
Kaylirr nodded and went to lie down. He fell asleep almost immediately.
The next day went by uneventful, as did the following couple of days. Before they knew it, they reached Larania. The settlement was definitely something else when compared to the main cities of the Fyrston Empire. First of all, one had to travel about three hours into the forest itself before even reaching the edge of town.
The canopy was thick above them as they made their way over the dirt path. The merchant had gone in this general direction before and knew the way. Even though it was still daytime, the surrounding area was quite dark due to the covering trees and it was quite ominous how the shadows seemed to almost sway in the wind.
`Are we almost there?’ Sairoc asked. `I’m not a big fan of forests.’
The merchant chuckled. `Calm yourself, dwarf, it shouldn’t be much farther now.’ He pointed in the direction they were traveling. `See those lights over there? That’s the edge of town.’
`Greetings,’ a voice said in front of them as they reached the torches that were placed near the outskirts of town. `What brings you to Larania?’ Three elves stepped onto the road. None of them were armed, but Kaylirr quickly spotted another two sitting up in the trees.
`We mean no harm, my buddy and I are just passing through, and this merchant here has been here before.’ Kaylirr stepped in front of the wagon, one arm outward.
`Let me see your hands so I can make sure you’re not holding a weapon.’
Kaylirr removed his cloak, revealing that his arm was missing. `As you can see, although I am definitely well-armed, I’m not about to start any trouble.’
The elf who asked took a step back, clearly feeling bad about asking after seeing Kaylirr’s situation. `Very well, you may enter.’
`Much obliged.’ Kaylirr readjusted his cloak and they walked into town, alongside the cart and their horses.
The town was built into the forest as much as a dwarven town would be built into the mountains. Houses and trees intertwined and ladders and wooden stairs were carved into the trees themselves. Everything was covered in faint lantern and torch light to make up for the shade cast by the dense canopy.
At the center of the town, the merchant said his goodbyes. `I appreciate the protection, even though it seems the journey here went without hiccups.’
Kaylirr smiled. `You never know what will happen out there, so it never hurts to be careful. Then if everything turns out okay, that’s a good thing for everyone involved.’
The merchant laughed. `That is very true, young man.’ He handed them a sack of coins and, after Kaylirr had a quick look through it, he nodded. `Thank you for your business and good luck on your venture.’
The merchant waved at them as they walked away, towards the nearby inn.
The inn was carved from a giant willow. Most trees around here were larger than any in other parts of the Empire, but this one was almost in a league of its own. Three different buildings were carved into its large trunk: a general store, a town center, and an inn. Outside the inn was a sign attached to a small pole, with a lantern hanging from it. The sign read Celeran’s Outpost.
`This is the place,’ Sairoc said. Kaylirr followed his friend into the building. As soon as they entered, the smell of beer and candles came at them in an intense wave. It took their eyes a second to adjust to the dim lighting. The inn was mostly empty, save for two elves sitting at a table, and the innkeeper himself.
Sairoc walked straight to the bar.
`What can I help you folks with?’
`Good afternoon, we’re looking for a man by the name of Shiraq, he’s supposed to be our guide. Any idea where we can find him?’
As they stood there, the door behind them opened. `I heard my name,’ a deep voice said.