When he reached the edge of the forest, the man who had walked more than one hundred days stopped for a moment just to stare.
The verdant growth was the thickest he had ever seen, a wild profusion of brambles, vines, and all manner of trees, from saplings to towering ancients, all forming a solid green wall that seemed impenetrable. But as he studied it, what looked like the narrowest of game trails appeared to his crow-footed gaze. With a last glance up at the full moon overhead, he gripped his walking staff a little tighter, then stepped inside.
It was like stepping from day into darkest night as the canopy cut off all light from the moonlit sky. Still, he forged ahead, sweeping ground cover aside with his staff as he walked, trusting his feet to stay on the path.
No sound came from the trees around him; no night birds’ cries, no cricket’s song, not even the high-pitched chirps of a bug-hunting bat soaring on the wing as it searched for its dinner. Normally, that might have put his senses on edge, as if a predator was nearby. But all he felt was calm that grew with every step forward. Every breath he took was redolent with the smells of the forest; dampness, earth, blooming, and a hint of rot. Whatever else this forest was, it was definitely alive.
He walked along the trail, aware that he was gradually ascending, until it came to a stop at the edge of the woods. The man looked at the huge trees that had been here long before him—and would probably be here long afterward—then kept going, out of the forest and onto the desolate mountain that lay beyond.
This rough, barren ground, filled with varying rocks and hardy scrub brush, wasn’t nearly as welcoming. He walked higher and higher, until the air grew thin and cold, and he pulled his cloak tighter around him. After what might have been hours, or perhaps even days, he lifted a battered boot up once more and stepped on a flat plateau.
His gaze rose to the bright moonbeams streaming down from the sky, bathing everything in soft silver. The rays revealed a ring of standing stones in the middle; huge rough slabs, twice as tall as he was, all arranged in a loose circle around the clearing. But what caught his gaze was the hunched figure sitting with his back to the newcomer in front of a crackling fire that was roasting two skinned coneys.
The man walked forward, his steps making no sound on the rock. When he reached the edge of the ring of stones, the old man grunted and turned his head to reveal his profile in the firelight. “Old” was being generous—by his wizened, grizzled face, he’d seen at least a hundred summers if he’d seen a day. Yet he moved with limber ease, raising a thin arm to acknowledge his company. The newcomer even thought he caught an odd flash of green on the man’s face, but it was there and gone so quickly he wondered if he had even seen it at all.
“Took you long enough,” the old man said. “Well, don’t just stand there—expect you’re hungry after that trip. Come. Sit and eat.”
At the invitation, the walking man’s stomach reminded him that he was hungry. Casting a look around for anything else that might pose a threat, he walked over to the man and sat down across from him. “Thank you, but I have no coin to pay for my food.”
“Heh,” the man grunted as he stared into the fire, the upper portion of his face shrouded by his hood. “Their coin is worthless here. That you said so, not so much. Well go on, they won’t bite…not anymore.”
When the man still hesitated, the old man chuckled. “Expecting some wild barley served on a mushroom cap, perhaps? Maybe droplets of spring water poured from a jack-in-the-pulpit?” He stroked his bewhiskered chin. “Or maybe I’m not what you were expecting either? You got caught up chasing a tree-sprite into the woods, or a pretty little river-nymph, and just when you expected to catch her, you wound up here, with me instead, is that it?”
“No… I…I don’t know what I was expecting,” the man said as he pulled the blackened spit from the fire and waited for the hissing carcasses to cool a bit. “I’m not even sure why I’m here.”
“Oh yes you do,” the old man said, holding out his hand. The other man slid one of the coneys into it. He waited for his host to begin eating before pulling off a leg and doing the same.
“No rabbit food or plant-meals here. We’re hunters, just like much of what lives in the forest—and we eat what we kill.”
And that’s what they did for the next few minutes, until the coneys were nothing but two small piles of bones on the ground. A soft gurgle of water nearby revealed a small, burbling spring bubbling straight out of the rocks to pool in a shallow depression. The man cupped some in his hand to drink, but glanced at the old man before raising it to his lips.
“By my blood, you’re a suspicious one. Nothing but spring water in your hand, but if you need, I’ll have some first to prove it.”
“I have my reasons.” The man stared at him for a long moment, then drank the water in his hand and reached down for more. “No…it’s just…wherever we are, it obviously isn’t normal.”
“And how did you come to be here?” the old man said, raising his head to look at the man for the first time. His face was that of a normal, bearded, ancient man—all except his eyes. They had completely been replaced by twin orbs of lambent green.
The man stared at his host for a long moment, swallowed, then spoke in a voice just above a whisper. “I was a farmer once. I had everything I could want or need…a family…my fields, crops, and cattle. It was hard sometimes, but good…it was a good life.
“Last autumn, we were set upon by merciless bandits. They took everything, killed my stock for food, looted our house and burned the fields, killed my children and wife, and left me for dead…
“When I came to, everything around me was ash and bone. I got up and walked away with just the clothes on my back. I spent the next few months—I don’t know how long it was—tracking them and killing them, one by one.”
“Why?” the old man asked. “Doing that wouldn’t bring your family back, after all.”
“I know…” The man met his questioner’s intense green gaze with his own brown-eyed one. “I swore an oath to stop their blight from spreading any farther across the land, by whatever means necessary…even if it killed me. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer as I had.”
The old man nodded. “And after?”
“When it was over, I started walking toward the rising sun,” the man said. “And now, here I am.”
“Yes, here you are indeed…” the old man replied. There was silence for a long moment. “Now do you know why you are here?”
There was a longer silence, finally broken by the man. “Yes…and no. Looking back on it, I felt something from this place, a pull drawing me toward it. But that didn’t begin until…”
“Until you had fulfilled your oath,” the old man finished for him. “You have worked the land, you have reaped the land…and you have spilled blood on the land. Whether you were ever aware of it or not, your actions placed you on a very certain path…a direct path here.”
“Are you saying that everything I did was…predestined?” the man asked.
“Not quite,” the old man replied. “The bandits may have chosen your farm out of a dozen. That was happenstance. Your reply to their actions, however, was not. Those actions also attracted the attention of certain…forces, let’s say. Very old, primal forces. They have tested you…and found you suitable.”
His green gaze flicked to his right, where a massive, two-handed axe leaned against the nearest standing stone. Its handle was knurled dark wood, worn smooth from decades of use. The thick blade was larger than the man’s head, and looked to be not stone or metal, but a strange combination of both.
“To accept this duty, there is only one thing left for you to do.” He looked back at the man sitting across from him, who was now frowning at the answer that had occurred to him.
“But…why?” he asked. “Surely…surely we would be stronger as two than one.”
“I asked the same question when I was faced with this choice many, many moons ago,” the old man replied. “The one I replaced didn’t have an answer for me while he lived. But I have one for you.
“This duty you take on is long and hard, the hardest thing you will ever do. It wears at you, will wear you down, both in success and failure. And there will be failures…that is one thing you cannot escape.
I have experienced much of both in my life, but I am tired…so very tired. And much like the elder of the pack or herd, when their time is done, they realize it, and know that the mantle needs to be passed on. I have reached that time in my life. I only ask that if you accept, that your blow be swift.”
With that he bowed his head, and silence reigned in the stone-ringed clearing once more.
The man regarded his host for a long moment, then rose and walked over to the axe resting against the stone. Reaching out a hesitant hand, he touched the thick haft, finding it smooth and fitting into his palm like it belonged there. He picked it up and held it in both hands for a moment, feeling its weight, its heft…its power.
He looked at the old man, his head bowed, hands resting on his knees, looking for all the world like he was asleep. The man watched him sit there for a moment that seemed to splinter into a thousand seconds. Then, he raised the axe high overhead.
“I do this in celebration of your life, and with gratefulness for the gift you are about to pass on, Hierophant.” The words sounded odd on his lips, like they came from somewhere beyond him, but as he said them, he knew they were right.
He brought the axe down with all of his might on the old man’s unprotected neck. The razor-sharp blade did its work quickly, cleaving through flesh, bone, and sinew with a whisper. The man paused for a moment, eyes closed, breathing heavily. Then he opened them again to gaze upon the world in a completely different light.
The old man’s head, cleanly severed, had fallen into his lifeless lap. The man tipped his still-sitting body over so that his blood could flow into the earth. “From dust we arise, to dust we return.”
It had been a terrific shock for him, all these memories that were both his and not his rushing into his mind like an avalanche of time…tending to the wild lands…protecting newborn bear cubs from hunters…causing a rockslide to prevent it from posing a hazard to others traversing the pass below…providing game to a village trapped by snowfall…battling a raging forest fire…starting a similar fire to clear undergrowth…destroying a logging mill that was clear-cutting the land around it…and dozens upon dozens of battles…many for nature, sometimes against nature, and almost always against his fellow man…
The memories had come upon him by the dozens, by the hundreds, the pooled knowledge of all those who had come before, culminating in the one whose head he had just taken…and which now all resided in him.
His new mission clear, the man wiped the axe blade on the mossy ground, then walked to the bubbling stream and knelt to drink. As he did so, his eyes—now twin pools of lambent green—stared back at him from the pure, dark water.
The Druid is the third of the nine EMBERWIND Classes we’ll be unveiling over the coming months. You can play as the Druid with Laureat in our free Hero variant DLC for EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia or learn more about him on the Druid Class page.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.