Fruit of the Fallen

Lost in Twilight Woods

A Ranger's Elegy

Part 30 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Two Weeks Ago, The Great Thrane Robbery
Cletus was manning his controls within the train when the decision was made.
“No way. Var, the moment they started pulling on us we went down. We can’t jump a damned river like that. I’ll hop out and make my own way back,” Jorduna had said, in a voice the dwarf had never heard before. The rogue was resigning herself to a sacrifice play. Cletus would’ve never thought she’d have it in her. And he couldn’t let her do it.
He cut his connection and moved as fast as he could towards the aft of the car. He knew Jorduna, she’d never back down from something like this. He found her, hand clenching a heavy lever on the console, ready to trade away her life. Instead, Cletus gave her a punch to the back of the head. Combat experience is one thing, but it doesn’t let you ignore catastrophic blows. The dwarf quickly supports the clutched lever, and then shoulders the hobgoblin.
“Jor, don’t do it!” Vargard’s voice comes through the rogue’s sending stone. Var, Cletus sighs to himself, he won’t understand why. None of them will, but he’d made up his mind. He sets her down against her former panel, slipping her a dose of healing potion. She’d come to soon, but not before he’d separated the cars. He seals the dividing door, though, just in case.

“Jorduna, answer me!” Vargard cries through the stone, which Cletus had just reactivated.
“He… the bastard,” she replies weakly, “Cletus sucker punched me, threw me into his car and barred the door behind him.”
“What?!”
“Sorry… boss,” Cletus says softly, barely able to get the words out, “’t’s ta’ only way.” The dwarf forces out a fake laugh, and says, “Couldn’t let Jor have all the fun.” He solemnly pulls down on the lever Jorduna had been standing over, and catches himself as the car rapidly decelerates.
“Damnit Cletus, you shouldn’t have…” Vargard begins
“Var, you’ve gotta’ jump,” he cuts him off, “I made my choice. Save ‘urselves.”
““Everyone… get ready to jump on my count,” Vargard orders through the stone, and Cletus’ heart lifts. He knew Vargard would make the right decision, in the end. He just wished he didn’t had to have put his friend in that position. He hears the count off, and feels the energy of the jump as the cars ahead begin their flight.
River must be coming up soon, he thinks. Still moving way too fast. Should be quick, at least that’s what he hoped. Always wondered… what was after…

And then, the train cabin made contact with the river bed. The metal, designed to be lighter than the standard alloy used, crumpled before the force of impact. Survival inside, without any form of protection, was impossible. Those in the latter cars were more fortunate, the car ahead providing a buffer against the impact.
When the authorities finally managed to clear the wreck to the point where they could salvage the last car of the jumper train, they found what could only be described as a bloody mess. Nothing survived either the crash, or the further decomposition, well enough to be identified. Frustrated, Thrane would give up its last hope at finding any definitive identification on those which had stolen their newest development. They’d be forced to accept backroom settlements over a justified declaration of war against those they knew were responsible. Eventually, it would be as if the jumper train had never existed.

Location Unbound, Time Unwound
Cletus awakes suddenly, rasping as he drew in breath. It was painful, but only because he’d inhaled dirt along with the air. He coughs it out, looking around, surprised to be alive. The first thing he felt was an immediate sense of comfort, he was home. Surrounding him were trees, great beings of vibrant nature. Nowhere else in his life had he felt better than under a canopy.
“But…” whispered a voice in his head, “Remember… remember…”

And then, it all came roaring back. His last mission, his decision, and then sudden stop that had…
All existential thoughts were suddenly pushed to the side, senses coming to full alert. It was then that he noticed the silence. The natural symphony that normally echoed throughout a daytime forest was gone. This was beyond an early winter’s hibernation, there was nothing around Cletus at all besides trees that seemed to reach endlessly upwards.
He was exposed. Completely vulnerable.

Without thought he finds his bow in hand, and looks to it with some surprise. He hadn’t remembered drawing it, hadn’t even thought that it would stay with him… here. Think later, move now, he tells himself, turning the advice into a mantra. He couldn’t sense any predators around him, but that is exactly the moment you can be sure one is tracking you.
None could match him in stealth, at least no one he had ever met. This had come to the great surprise of Jorduna, when they had first met. The part of Cletus not focused on survival smiles inwardly, fond of the memory. He ends up nestled far above the forest floor, finding a nook in one of the massive tree trunks.
“This ain’t a forest,” Cletus murmurs to himself, trying to get comfortable. He feels his rucksack press against his back, and hurriedly leans forward to access it. Adrenaline lowering, it was now time to assess the situation, to try and figure out this mess. Double checking his gear, he finds everything as he had had it just before the train crash. His focus was the on the sending stone, which he quickly activated.
“Var. Var! Can ya’ hear me!?” Silence was the only response. Alright, he thinks to himself, some twisted mockery of an afterlife this is. Alone in a dead forest, probably being hunted… What do I do?
Wait for night, was the eventual decision. The light was already low, maybe an hour before dusk. He settled down, watching for any sign of approaching night.

The dwarf gasps when he is awoken by an ear-splitting roar that shakes the trunk he was sequestered in. Cletus didn’t remember falling asleep. He wasn’t sure if he needed to anymore, but that wasn’t important right now. He hesitantly glances out, and sees that it’s still close to nightfall. Either he’d slept an entire day, or… damn, I don’t know, Cletus admits to himself. The situation was overwhelming the normally composed ranger. At the very least, whatever had created that roar didn’t seem to be close by.
Something had changed, however. Whereas before the land had been flat, the almost uniform trunks spreading out as far as the horizon, there was now a plateau. It was perhaps a half a mile away, and, impossibly, about that far up in the air as well. The dwarf takes a sip out of his flask, and finds with great relief that the drink inside was still his favorite. He didn’t have much left, and judging by the building hunger, he’d have to find food as well. Cletus would’ve found the thought of hunting comforting, if he had any idea what he’d be hunting. Or if something would be hunting him as well.

Everything else being featureless forest floor, dotted with infinitely tall trees, Cletus decides to make for the plateau. It takes him what seems hours to reach, but he does so eventually. Climbing the sheer rock face would’ve been impossible, but fortunately there was a tree fairly close that he could use to scale. It was strange, even considering his circumstances. The land seemed to have risen straight up, and from what he could tell the region was circular. The ranger wondered if this had anything to do with the roar that had awoken him.
He checks his supplies before committing to the climb. Fortunately, the dwarf had always carried a few days of supplies with him, even on missions. Should be enough for the climb. If not… could he die again? Would he just return to where he had begun? Would he even remember… hell, had he done all this before? “Gotta’ keep movin’,” Cletus says to himself, driving the thoughts away before fear and doubt consumed him.

A Few Days Later
Having finally reached the plateau, it is with some surprise that Cleuts finds he recognizes the scene before him. It was The King’s Forest, from Breland! A part of it, at least. Cletus couldn’t really estimate the distance, but the part that was here was far smaller than the whole of the forest.
There was life here, too. From the branch he was perched on, he could already see wildlife ahead. The climb had worn him out, but once recovered he’d be able to hunt. Something to help feel normal, at least.

It’d taken him some time stalking to bring down the deer. The dim light had remained as it was, making it impossible to definitively tell how much time had passed. The game here were unusually skittish, bolting at even random noise. Cletus took this as a good sign, though, it meant they were real. He made a small fire to cook the meet, careful not to make too much smoke. He’d remained close to the edge of the plateau, feeling it best to remain on the outskirts for now.
He was finishing the first hot food he had had in some time when he heard the cry. It wasn’t the intense bellow that had beckoned in the plateau a few days ago. It was human, or something close to it, and it was a cry of pain. In an instant, he had taken shelter in the branches of a nearby tree. But he couldn’t ignore what he had heard either. If there was someone else here, maybe they’d know what’s going on.
If they were still alive to tell him.

Cletus was making his way carefully through the woods towards the sound of the noise when the figure went bursting past him. Whoever it was hadn’t noticed him, but people rarely do when the dwarf was trying to remain hidden. He was about to move after them when the pursuers past him. Two of them, running after the first. What he saw chilled him, the hunters were humanoid, but twisted and suffused with a deep darkness. It made it hard to determine exactly what they were, but Cletus didn’t exactly want to either. Their weapons were more mundane, simple bows and sheathed swords.
Steeling himself, he carefully removed himself from his hiding place. The runner was heading straight for the edge of the cliff. He stops at the last tree before the clearing, and sees a female eladrin trapped between the two dark hunters and the edge of the cliff. The two were making wild slashes with their blades, though none were aimed at the woman. Instead, they seemed intent on making her slip over the edge.
Instead, it was one of they who went over, the force of Cletus’ arrow catching it by surprise and pushing it off the edge. The other is able to resist the next arrow, but the next seals its fate too. Warped screams echo, eventually fading.

The eladrin screams something at Cletus in elvish, but he can’t quite catch it. He was rusty with the language as it was, and he wasn’t in the best condition to try and pick apart what was thrown at him. “Stay back!” the woman screams in common, seeing the slight confusion on his face. “Just, just stay back!”
Cletus calmly drops his bow arm, and tries to speak. His throat catches for a moment, but he’s eventually able to force out, “Anymore?”
“You’re, are you…?” the eladrin asks, the end of her sentence trailing off.
“Wha’?”
“Sane,” she finishes, hesitant relief evident in her face. “No, none. At least, I think not. How have you survived so long here?”
“Havn’t. Dunno wha’ here is,” Cletus answers, “Hoped you did.”
“No, not entirely. But I fear I will become far more acclimated than I would like if we don’t act fast.”
“What do ya’ mean?”
The eladrin’s face falls. The relief from her rescue was fading, and revealing a hidden grief. “I came with someone, and they… Look,” she says, gathering herself, “Our way out of here is on his body.”
“Where’s that?”
“Those bastards’ camp,” the eladrin replies.

Some Time Later
The dark hunter’s camp was easy to find, black smoke billowing out of the trees. The two had remained silent thus far, just in case. Cletus wasn’t sure how much he could trust the eladrin, she hadn’t even given him his name. Though on the other hand, neither had he, and she was far more trustworthy than the other sentient life here.
They looked on the camp from the shelter of a tree several hundred feet away. Several of the dark hunters moved about, around a central fire. Nothing much else was clearly visible from that distance.
“What’re they?” Cletus asks.
“No idea,” the woman whispers back, “Probably servants of one of the Six.”
“Still haven’ said where here is,” Cletus comments.
The eladrin sighs, and replies, “I didn’t know exactly how to start, but… you know you’re dead, right?”
“Don’ feel like it, but yeah. Guessed ‘s much,” Cletus admits, “You too?”
“For a few years, yes,” the eladrin admits, “And if we get out of here I’ll be sure to tell you my story.”
“m’kay,” Cletus grunts ambigiously.
“Well,” she continues, “we need to get to them we need Yordrik’s pack.”
“I can get it,” Cletus says, “Where’s he?”
“When we… arrived here,” the eladrin says carefully, “Yodrik and I were ambushed. I got away, but he…”
“Dead?” Cletus asks, when she pauses.
“No,” the eladrin responds, “I, I ran, when those things attacked. But he can’t die, he already has. I’m more afraid of…”

The eladrin is interrupted by a loud scream of pain, the same one Cletus had heard earlier. “It’s him!” she whispers fiercely, and Cletus has to restrain her before she gave away their position.
“Chargin’ in won’ help ‘em,” Cletus admonishes.
“What? We need to save him, he’s still…”
“Ya said we need ta’ get somethin’ from ‘is pack to escape,” Cletus explains, cutting over the eladrin “Ya can cause a distraction, I get him an’ ‘is pack.”
“How can I trust you won’t just leave me?”
Cletus sighs. He wished Vargard and the others were here. Tactical discussions were always shorter, and he could use the backup. He answers, “I dunno what ya need from the pack. How much time d’ya need once I get it to ya’?”
“Not long,” the eladrin replies, “A few moments, no more. But if I draw the attention of all those beings…”
“Ya can run, I’ve seen ya’. Circle back around ta’ tha camp. Ya have a better idea?”
“N…no.”
“Give me a few minutes ta’ get close,” Cletus says, moving out.

There were six hunters in total at the camp, and they were all dancing around a man tied to the trunk of a tree. Cletus grimaces when he sees the state of the man, long and deep cuts were scattered around his body. Some should have been fatal, yet life persisted in the tortured frame. Those that weren’t cutting were using the nearby fire to heat their blades. Further away, in a neglected portion of the camp, lay the mutilated corpses of several game, as well as what appeared to be the possessions of the man. A tattered pack was among those thrown in the pile.
Entranced as they were in their torture, the dark hunters didn’t notice when Cletus crept up behind the tree Yordrik was lashed to. After a few moments, he hears a feminine scream come from somewhere out in the distance. It sounded genuine, and Cletus wonders if the eladrin had caught sight of her companion. The hunters all turn their heads, registering their new prey. They all set out, forgetting their former victim at the thought of a new one.

Cletus swiftly cuts the ropes tied around the tree, and Yordrik falls to the ground heavily. Cletus grimaces again when he reaches to pick up the man, his body was practically shredded into ribbons. If he was capable of death, it would have come for him long ago. Making a decision, Cletus dashes over to the bag and grabs it. “Ready!” he shouts, returning to Yordrik.
The man raises what little he had of a hand, trying to reach for Cletus. Air whistles through his throat, but nothing was comprehensible. The dwarf senses what he was trying to warn him of, however. One of the hunters hadn’t ventured far from the camp, and returned after hearing Cletus. It takes several arrows to the chest as it tries to reach him, not even trying to dodge them.
Cletus’ aim grows wider with nervousness as his arrows do little more than slow the approaching dark figure. It was nearly upon him when the eladrin comes sliding towards him, desperately clutching the pack. She quickly withdraws a scroll, saying to Cletus, “By all that’s holy keep them off of me!”
Cletus grunts, seeing the rest of the dark hunters rapidly approaching. He was about to resort to his swords when the eladrin yells, “Grab my hand!”, stretching out a hand to the dwarf. She also had a palm pressed against Yodrik’s chest. The scroll she had been reading from lay glowing in the air, hovering before her.
The dwarf quickly grabs the hand, feeling an immense surge of magical power flow through him as he does so. He initially resists it out of instinct, but then allows it free reign. The closest hunter opens its maw as it bears down on him, twisted fangs showing most of the way down its maw. But they would never reach the dwarf, as the spell completes, and he is whisked away.

End of the Line
In an instant, Cletus is transported away from the ever-dim forest. It felt more intense then the teleportation he’d experienced before, the sheer sense of velocity overwhelming him. It ceased just as quickly, and the dwarf is blinded by the intense light of the room he now found himself in.
“Il’yena, Yordrik, back so… Help! Help!” a deep voice cries out. Cletus feels a blade against his throat, and the voice threatens, “Don’t you move.”
“Dorian, he’s with me! He’s with me!” the eladrin, who Cletus guessed was Il’yena, cries. He feels the blade withdraw.
“What in Siberys happened…” Dorian sighs, looking at the broken form of Yordrik.
“No time,” Il’yena says, “Help me get him to Marvor.”
“Right,” Dorian nods. Cletus had just turned to assess the new person, and finds a burly orc in heavy armor. Two others stood at the threshold of this small room, both looking agape at Yordrik. A sheet from a nearby bed, for this appeared to be a bedchamber of sorts, was guided underneath the man, and then all assembled hoisted the cloth.

By his nature Cletus merely followed suit, not questioning their actions. Neither did they question him, focused as they were on helping their friend. Rather, he focused on absorbing his surroundings. They had exited the small room into a hallway, one with odd stonework. It was unlike any he had seen before, but it appeared mortal. Wherever he was now, it definitely wasn’t the home of some deity.
As for the men who surrounded him, Cletus noticed that they all wore similar clothing. It seemed worn, though, and had the classic marks of thread hold solely together by near constant application of mending. Magical repair can only go so far.
Eventually they come to a large chamber at the end of the hall. It was shaped like a dome, a large crack in the back exposing utter darkness behind. In the foreground, however, was a roiling bluish flame. A voice emanates from its approximate center, booming across the hall.
“What has happened? And who is this?” it says. A figure forms from the fire, and kneels down to inspect Yordrik as he is placed in front of the flame.
“The scouting mission went to Khyber,” Il’yena cries, “We would have both suffered this fate were it not for this dwarf.”
“His soul is in great turmoil,” the being known as Marvor reports, returning its figure to a standing posture. “Vaertrouse may mend his body, though I fear what damage his spirit may have sustained.”
“The Sovereigns have not heard our prayers thus far,” one of those who had been silent thus far comments mournfully, “Though I fear we may need their strength now more than ever.” Cletus noticed the man finger a small pendant worn around his neck, and figured it was a holy symbol. The man goes to tend to Yordrik, grimacing as he does so.

“What about him?” the only one who hadn’t spoken yet asked, staring at Cletus. He was a half-elf, old even by their standards. It was a hard look, a distrusting look. “Who are you?”
“Wait Carver,” Il’yena says hurriedly, “He’s a friend.”
“He’s no Cyrian,” Carver says, spitting. Cletus remains impassive, however, undaunted by the aggression.
“Everyone calm down,” the voice from the flame bellows. After a moment of silence, it continues, “Dwarf, who are you?”
The ranger looks down, unsure where to begin or if he should. He coughs, eventually, and mumbles, “Cletus.”
“And you brought him here?” the man called Carver accuses Il’yena, taking offense at Cletus’ reticence.
“Now is not the time for arguing,” the flaming figure intercedes once more, and it was clear that the others deferred to him. Even Carver, who reluctantly backed down and glanced away from the fire.

“It is obvious you are not Cyrian,” Marvor continues, “Though that matters little now. You are dead, as I have no doubt you have surmised, as are we.”
“How long ‘ave ya’ been ‘ere?” Cletus asks, hoping the one before him could answer what few other questions he had.
“No long,” Marvor replies despondently, “Two years, give or take. We have begun to lose count, and I cannot fathom what an eternity here will do to us.”
“Two… two years?” Cletus questions hurriedly, realization dawning on him, “Ya’ were in tha’ Mournin’!?”
“What the hell is the Mourning?” Carver replies in a similar tone, worry now entering his voice.
“Ya’ don’ know…” A heaviness fills the dwarf. He knew what he’d have to tell them, and that he probably knew more than they did.

“Cyre… gone?” Vaertrouse, the cleric, gasps to himself after Cletus had explained. At first they didn’t believe the dwarf, but soon realized he had little reason to lie.
“We couldn’t have… No, impossible,” Marvor states firmly, resolve that had so far stood firm breaking slightly, “My experiment couldn’t have done that. But it may explain our presence here.”
“How can you be so sure?” Carver shouts, radiating anger at both Cletus and Marvor, “How the hell can you… gone, just like that? That’s what this is, you bastard! You damned our people Marvor, and this is our judgment!”
“My work was pyromancy! It is impossible for…” Marvor stops himself, noticing that both Cletus’ and Carver’s hands were reaching for weapons. The latter was heavily considering an offense, and the former a response to such. “Carver, you were with me the whole time. You all were, nothing I did was different from my previous attempts at pyrogenesis!”
“Carver just… just calm down,” Vaertrouse tries to reason, fear present in the cleric’s voice, “Even if you want to kill Marvor you couldn’t! For so many reasons!”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to… ugh,” the man grunts, as Cletus’ fist knocks him down. He looks at the other Cyrians awkwardly.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
“No,” Marvor sighs, causing small wisps of flame to ascend at the edges of the flame pit, “It was Carver who was at fault. I fear this place has taken its toll most on him… not counting Yordrik,” Marvor grimaces, the outline of his head glancing over to the broken man. Vaertrouse had covered him with the bedsheet after doing whatever he could, but the grim outline which it cast was still disturbing. “Perhaps now, I owe you an explanation.”

“Thrane had been our enemy for quite some time,” Marvor begins to explain, “And the one thing that held them together the most was the church. I thought, if we could create another phenomenon like the voice in the flame, we could use that propaganda to weaken their resolve. It didn’t even have to be completely true, just enough to give us an edge. I’d happened upon an ancient writ of some sort which described the act, copied from an original held deep in Thrane. An incantation was of particular note, and within a year I was making progress. Until…”
“Perhaps what happened to Cyre, The… Mourning?” Vaertrouse looks to Cletus for confirmation, and he nods, “Was divine retribution for your studies? Could Carver actually… is this why the Host won’t answer me?”
“No,” Cletus shakes his head, “What’vr tha’ Mournin’ was, wasn’t good.”
“My studies admittedly hadn’t made enough progress to threaten Thrane at that point either,” Marvor counters, uneasy at the growing criticism, “At least until… this,” Marvor gestures sweepingly, traces of flame echoing the movement of his hand. “If The Mourning created creatures of darkness as you described, then perhaps it interfered with my spell in a way to cause this. How we travelled to this… place, wherever we are, is beyond me.”
“This is Marvor’s spell chamber,” Il’yena quickly adds, noting that this fact had gone unspoken.
“Ok,” Cletus says, not fully understanding, “But how’d ya’ end up inna forest?”

“Forest?” Marvor glances over to Il’yena, who quickly explains what had happened both preceding to finding Cletus, and afterwards.
“The forest… sounds somewhat like tales of Lamannia…” Marvor muses, “But those beasts, definitely servants of the Shadow. What of the wildlife?”
“None,” Cletus answers decisively, “Least not till I found tha’ plateau.”
“That… was not Lamannia then,” Marvor sighs, “When it became clear that it was all but darkness surrounding us, I began attempting to open planar rifts. Though I am stuck here, if the others could escape this place…” Marvor explains, “It took me a month of concentration just to open this first portal, and craft the return scroll. Now that I have it will be easier to return, though I doubt any would be willing to do so.”
“Lamannia. That’s Siberys,” Dorian chips in, and his face turns pale, “The Shadow…”
“What is it, Dorian?” Marvor asks the orc.
“Been readin’ in the library,” he responds, blank-faced, “Dragonborn treatise on Siberys. How close planar realms can sometimes bleed together and create… junctions, I think the word was. Places were elements of both planes mix together. Lamannia explains the forest.”
“What explains those beasts, then?” Il’yena asks, not liking where this was going.
“Answer’s the same as the one we’ve been wondering,” Dorian answers, staring out of the breach in the ritual chamber and out into the blackness. “Where we are. It’s Mabar. The Endless Night.”

Continued in Part 31, Darkness Unbroken – Hope All But Lost

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