Night crept along the floor of the Valley of Shadow toward the low, window pierced walls of the Kindred Spirit. Alsain, first of the moons, rose above the encircling peaks of the Carpé Mountains throwing his silvery light upon the freshly fallen snow. The mountains themselves stood like silent sentinels watching over the shimmering hollow. In the light of the moon, both valley and monastery appeared to be clad in diaphanous vestments of glittering diamonds.
This effect was marred by only one dark spot. A short distance from the Kindred Spirit, a massive man lay clad in fur cloak upon the ground. His tangled blonde hair spread in a halo over the snow as his gold flecked black eyes reflected the marginal light of the stars.
Running a callused hand over his face to brush aside from snow, Ograc Cingriffon smiled broadly as a stray breeze tickled his slightly pointed ear. In his head he thanked and praised Alsain in the lilting fluid tongue of his mother’s people. Then he placated the Night in the guttural harsh language of his father’s. Even if he had dedicated himself to Kersal, it was best not to offend any deities, just on general principles. That need fulfilled, Ograc leaned back once more to stare as the stars made themselves seen. Each picture they painted he named in both tongues.
There was Tynealisthialin the Hunter, also called Grask the Render. And to the north was Marshok, Hound of the Underworld, known to some as Flasial, Master of the Hunt. For years the monks and priests of the Spirit had taught Ograc to embrace both halves of his lineage. And he still strove to do so, although it was difficult to enfold his sire’s violent heritage among the life of peace the monks lived and taught. His mother’s ancient, peaceful, nature loving people were easier to embrace. Yet, tempted as he was to forget, he felt the monks spoke truth when they told him that to deny his father’s people would be to deny part of what made him, Ograc, unique.
So Ograc meditated with his spiritual brothers when he could, gently embracing the love of the world that his mother’s people held. And he let his instinctual understanding of his father’s flow with guidance while he led trains of pilgrims safely through the mountain passes. The latter was probably his most important job and service for the Spirit. The Carpés were filled with bands of Orcs and Ogres that would think nothing of waylaying pilgrims. And then there were “rogue” cohorts of the Republican Army raiding anyone they thought might support Thrahir. Last, but not least, were the thrill-seekers and brigands of that southern kingdom who were all too willing to try for the bounty their bigoted king had set for the ears and heads of most non-Humans. According to the elder monks, the roads were safer before Thrahir had seceded from the Archentheyic Republic. But even they only guessed that from old records as the break had occurred a few generations in the past.
Traffic in pilgrims would be nothing but the merest trickle for at least another week though. Few felt the need to visit Kersal’s holy place badly enough to brave the passes this early in the spring. But in another week or two the bad snows should stop and the passes should be cleared. With Kersal’s blessing, he added.
A wistful sigh escaped his lips. Until then, Ograc would have a few more nights to do nothing but stare up at the sky and a couple days of splitting wood and helping in the kitchens before the valley became busy once more.
Lying in the snow, Ograc let such thoughts fade from his mind. As they slipped off into the darkness, he let his consciousness drift into the quiet peaceful glade the monks had shown him. Within a score or two breaths, Ograc’s body was settled in a state halfway between sleep and trance. Only a small voice in the back of his head, triggered by his slip, kept the big man from drifting off totally into the realm of Dreams.
As usual when he entered this glade of his mind, Ograc found himself siting comfortably on the warm spring grass. The gently waving trees mimicked a forest clearing he had not seen since his youth, long before coming to the Kindred Spirit. And as it always was, the weather fit exactly into his favourite time of the year. The sky was a clear blue, the light breeze invigorating, and the air carried the faintest scent of inclement showers. While Ograc sat taking the place in, he watched a few small creatures; a chipmunk and some birds flitting through the trees as an amiable badger trundled along beneath them.
The huge man relaxed and sighed in contentment. Everything was as it should be. As Ograc was settling back, a form flashed through the trees . . . a Human form. Just as he was getting up to investigate, a strange woman stepped into the glade.
She was obviously fey, as Ograc could instantly tell from her willowy form and the almond-oval shape of her face. And she was clad in a loose approximation of hunters’ garb. All of this he absorbed over the few heartbeats it took to stand and move back a step. Despite having faced down dozens of bandits in the past, Ograc felt a nervous sweat drip down his brow. And there was a little shiver at the base of his spine.
The only creatures that were supposed to be able to invade a meditation glade were all either unfriendly or divine. And neither were things Ograc wanted to tangle with in the physical world, much less this one.
But it looked like he would have little choice in the matter as the woman was slowly approaching him. Long experience told Ograc that she was still moving too fast for him to safely withdraw from this pocket realm. If he tried to go fast it could work, or it could send his spirit hurling out into the void leaving his body to waste away in the winter’s last snow. The latter had happened before to monks much more skilled and experienced than he was. Ograc shuddered at the thought of poor Brother Andrilyr.
The woman was exceptionally close now. She started to reach a hand out toward Ograc. He scrambled back a few steps and her hand paused. Her brow furrowed and eyes clouded in a look that managed to mingle confusion with concern. The woman’s face cleared and turned swiftly to a questioning look. She stopped moving and held her hand out palm up.
Seeing that the woman appeared willing to wait, Ograc sat a few feet away from her. He stared at the fey and considered his situation. The being was silent and seemed non-threatening for the moment, he thought. But that would probably change if he tried to move away or draw himself out of the trance. Something in the back of his mind was certain of this. Even in this mindscape, where he was bereft of a physical body, Ograc felt a cold sweat work its way in a slow trickle down his neck and back.
He sat and pondered the situation for a while. Ograc was able to come up with three options. He could remain still and let his body waste away over a few weeks. Or he could try to return to his body swiftly, hope to “outrun” the being, and hope Fortune was on his side. Finally, he could risk touching the being, which seemed to be what it wanted, and take the chance that he would still be sane and able to return afterwards. None of them were especially wonderful choices, but the third offered the best hope of survival, in some form at least.
With a course of action decided, Ograc tentatively stretched out a hand toward the entity. When it did not move, he rose and came closer so their hands could meet. An armlength away, Ograc stopped moving and reached forward again. He extended his arm, hand, and fingers to the fullest.
A burst of color flashed in Ograc’s mind as his fingertips brushed the being’s. Of its own volition his hand jerked back. Slowly, carefully, Ograc forced his arm to reach out to the being once more. He was nearly exhausted by the time their limbs could almost touch.
With one remaining effort of will he forced his fingers into contact with the entity’s. Mentally he cringed the whole way, recalling the last moment.
This time, Ograc’s head was flooded with images. At first they came so fast that they all blurred into one indistinguishable mix of color. Almost as if some mad painter had dashed his entire palette upon the canvas.
Gradually the myriad pictures became clearer and separated from each other. Ograc could sense that they were still moving faster than any mortal eye could note them, but in this place everything could be absorbed more rapidly. Even so, Ograc could make no sense of them. Each seemed totally random and unconnected to the one before it.
First came a simple granite fortress, more of a tower, he thought. Then a herd of stocky black sheep. Next came a crashing waterfall, Ograc could almost hear the mass of water thundering along. This was followed by a brilliantly emerald serpent of phenomenal size which somehow lead to a blindingly white field of virgin snow. The light faded into a dingy grey and bustling cityscape which in turn melted into a stately and massive mountain, the likes of which Ograc had never seen. Abruptly the scene vanished to be replaced by a palomino charger barely confined in a stable. The horse melted into an image of a truly horrific mask that grossly exaggerated Human features. As Ograc decided that the face must represent a demon-god of some sort, the image vanished. It was replaced by a ruddy, black bearded visage that Ograc took to be Dwarven.
As the face gradually faded from his vision it was replaced bit by bit with a bare expanse of snow. As his eyes adjusted, the giant man discovered that the field ended on two sides in cliffs. The other sides butted up against a familiar copse of evergreens and a thin stone wall. A faint groan came from somewhere nearby. It took a few heartbeats to realize that the noise came from him.
When he tried to get up, Ograc groaned again. Every joint in his body seemed to protest. They all cracked as he forced them into motion. Another moan escaped his lips as the morning sun hit him full force in the eyes. As he began to drag himself back to the Spirit, Ograc decided the whole night must have crept by while he was meditating.
When dawn inched over the Carpés and into his cell’s tiny slit window, it lanced into the giant’s eyes. He stretched and yawned, surprised to find that he was well rested and in bed. He found that he could recall nothing of his trip back to the Spirit. The morning light usually came to the monastery late, nestled as it was against the eastern peaks, but even so, he could not have beaten it, could he? But the only other options were that he had slept for a whole day or more, or, that his whole walk to gaze upon the stars and disrupted mediation had all been part of a dream. The first seemed unlikely. The monks would not have allowed him to sleep through their times of prayer, communal meals, and meditation unless he was suffering from an incapacitating injury or illness. The idea of last night’s events all being a dream was at once easier and harder to deal with. On the one hand he could discount a dream as an effect of last night’s dinner or something related to being cooped up in the valley all winter. Both had happened before. Still, the images of the woman and what she related were strong enough in his memory that, if he was willing to call it a dream, it cold have been one sent by some person or some thing. And the idea that something, from Kersal or not, could plant such an experience in him sent a chill down Ograc’s spine.