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The Pass: Part 1

I can only hope I've hidden in the woods long enough for any guards patrolling the road to give up looking for me. I hike to the road winding toward the pass, then head north again. As the road enters the mountains, the sun slips behind the rugged hills running to the west of the river and road. It will be night soon. I continue until I reach one of the regularly-spaced camp sites, then gather some wood rather than burning what I packed into my holding satchel while I hid in the forest. That prepared, I put up my tent and light a fire. I set out my warding braziers, lighting small fires in each to empower the runes which will maintain a barrier through the night against darkling predators.

Then I sit down on my sleepsack with the tent’s door tied open, watching the fire and chewing on a trail sausage. The smoked mixture of dried fatty meat, dried fruit, and preservative herbs is bitter, but a sausage link is a meal. The preservative herbs are chosen for their mild healing properties as well, which helps a traveler avoid strains, sprains, and illness on the road.

“Ay,” someone calls as it is nearly dark. It is a man’s voice in the nomad tongue. The speaker is deliberately slowing their speech as many nomads do when talking to the other peoples of the world to make their words easier for others to follow. He speaks in the dialect common in these parts. “May I join you for the night?"

I grind my teeth, not wanting witnesses that might remember me traveling this way. And a woman traveling alone can never be too careful, even if she isn't a fugitive. But I can’t very well deny the tradition of hospitality. “Very well,” I answer, in my best approximation of the orcish dialect common in Caer Bolan. “You don’t exactly have time to set up camp anyway, do you?” Being mixedbreed, I can speak the tongues of any of the four peoples, though some of the more difficult sounds in each give me trouble.

“Afraid we misjudged the time. And this is the first camp spot we found coming down from the mountains. Since the junction, I mean."

"That's a ways off."

"Yeah, long story. I can offer turnips and leeks, and salted mutton for stew,” the nomad says as he walks into the firelight, leading a mule with a common pack saddle. The thought of real food after a week living on trail sausage makes my mouth water. Two other nomad men follow him, wearing padded gambesons and simple helms with shields on their backs, carrying spears, with swords at their hips. They lead two more mules into the firelight, laden with pack saddles hung with durable leather sacks of the sort used to carry ore. The passes are too narrow for carts.

“I appreciate that. Afraid all I have to share besides the fire is trail sausage.” The nomad grimaces, holding his palm out and shaking his head. “Sounds like you should be thanking us.” Do I hear a lewdly suggestive tone? Do I see a glimmer in his eye, or was it just the firelight? And did the two guards exchange meaningful glances? Or maybe I am just being paranoid.

“If you think that, I’ll stick to the sausage.” I can hear an edge creeping into my voice, but decide to double down on my irritation rather than suppressing it. “Better than sleeping with one eye open in case you think I owe you something.” He looks chastened. Good. Awake and on my feet I’d have a chance of taking them. Maybe. I’d be better off running into the night though and doubling back to take the braziers while they slept. I can survive in the darkness, but without the protection of the braziers, they’d most likely end up feeding some darkling before morning. He's probably not a threat though. Probably just trying to be funny. But I haven’t survived on the streets by hoping for the best. “Come on, let’s adjust these braziers,” I say, changing the subject, then stand and sling the crossbow over my shoulder.

We spread the braziers out, keeping them as close to a square as possible so they'll provide the strongest barrier. We set small new fires in them to reset the warding runes. Then the nomad guards pound a stake for the mules and pull the leather sacks off their backs, their movements speaking to the weight of the sacks. That finished, they begin putting up their tent, while the merchant makes a simple stew.

“Did you come over the pass from Garenalp?” I ask. It is a dwarven mining city to the north, and I’d be willing to bet they are carrying smelted iron. The sidhe isles to the east oppose the empire, making a sea voyage to the mining cities hazardous. It isn’t just small-talk though. If they talk to anyone about me, I hope they pass on that I asked about the northern pass rather than the western one.

“Aye, we took a load of charcoal over on the backs of a dozen mountain sheep and these mules. Traded the lot for raw bloom iron.” The half-refined iron is a bit heavier than it would be after further smelting but requires far less fuel to produce. Fuel is in short supply to the north, so bloom is significantly less expensive. I make myself not look at the bags, as the contents of those bags are surely more valuable than everything I’ve stolen in the last year put together. That’s a dangerous thought, given the present company. Nomads have a talent for reading the voices and expressions of others. It makes them superb negotiators. I fear I might give my thoughts away. But booty without a fence is worthless, and I can’t go back to Caer Bolan. I make myself keep that hard reality in mind as I ask about the road north, so my voice will betray no thought of robbing them.

“Be careful. Since we approached the crossroads, something has been stalking us.” says one of the guards.

“What manner of thing?”

“Something dark,” says the other guard. I hear an edge of fear. “Raised the hair of our necks, even though it was day.”

“That’s why we ran into trouble on the campsite,” says the merchant. “We thought it might lair in the ruins at the junction, so we were loathe to camp there. Any darkling strong enough to stalk us in the daylight...” He doesn't have to complete the thought.

That news is disturbing. “Are you initiates?” They all shake their heads. It isn’t surprising, most surface-dwellers aren’t. Only bounty hunters generally bother.

“It isn’t something we’d usually have to worry about,” says the merchant with a shrug.

“Yeah, usually. I don’t like the sound of that. But I am an initiate. 3rd degree. I should be okay.” Who am I trying to convince, them or myself? They are three, and obviously armed, while I am alone and likely to appear less dangerous as prey to some darkling creature. Initiation teaches us how to overcome the powers of supernatural things, but we can’t project an aura like the darklings can. There’s nothing to warn a darkling that I’m more of a threat than I appear.

The conversation wanders into various small matters. They seem friendly enough and have been respectful, so I decide to accept a bowl of stew once it is ready. But shortly after I begin eating, I feel my vision darken slightly and the world becomes a bit muffled. At first, I fear the nomads have drugged the stew and the effects of the toxin are dulling my senses, but then I remember their stalker. Yes, something’s aura is deadening my vision and hearing. The effect is subtle, and I probably only notice it because of my ability to see in darkness and my acute hearing. That any darkling’s powers should be able to push past the wards and still have enough power to affect me in spite of my initiation is disturbing. I know such powerful things exist in this world, but they are rare. I wonder how far away it is. That would tell me much.

I stand and walk away from the nomads, then call power and open myself to the darkness. But I sense nothing beyond the wards, though the veil of the thing's aura still hangs over my senses. Can it be masking itself from my magical senses somehow? I return to the fire.

“Do you feel that?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” The merchant seems puzzled.

"Something darkening your vision, muffling your hearing?"

They shake their heads at first, but the aura is getting stronger, and soon they begin to nod and answer yes.

“It shouldn’t be able to reach us past the wards,” says a guard.

“It is more powerful than the wards. All magic has limits.” The guards and merchant look at each other as they consider my words. “I have to see my cousin who lives east of Garenalp,” I lie “So I have no choice but to continue. But my long knife isn’t the strongest weapon. I don’t suppose you have a spare spear I could buy?”

“I keep mine lashed to one of the donkeys, but I find I’m loathe to part with it just now,” says the merchant. “I do have spare spears-heads for repairs. Nothing fancy, steel-edged iron. You can probably find a tree to cut into a pole though.”

“That will do fine,” I say. “How much.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure how well we’d have fared tonight with that thing out there if you hadn’t had your camp set up and ready for us.” he looks haunted by the creature’s aura, and its obvious power. “A spearhead is the least I can offer by way of thanks.”

I nod. “I appreciate it. we can talk in the morning.”
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