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The Pass: Part 2

I wish the travelers well and turn in, carrying the crossbow into the tent with me. I no longer believe the merchants are a threat, but best to be safe. The crossbow isn’t my preferred weapon and I have no expectation that it will help me against whatever creature is out there, but I hope it will add a deterrent if the nomads have thoughts of being stupid. But my biggest concern isn’t the strangers in my camp. Somewhere out there is a darkling creature strong enough to attack through my wards if it chooses to. If the wards can't stop the effects of its power, they won't stop the creature either, though they will weaken it and cause it pain. Then another thought occurs to me. Could such a creature attack me in daylight? Surely not, or it would have attacked the merchants, right? I hope that’s the case.

Before going to sleep, I string a tight silk thread from my sewing kit around the perimeter of my tent at knee height and fasten it to a tube of shadowpowder. Who knows how the darkling’s senses might work, but I hope that a bursting powdered darkness might at least give me a chance if the thing attacks during the night. I sleep in my armor and clothes, with my right hand on my knife. It is uncomfortable, but worth it tonight.

I awaken to the first light of dawn filtering through the canvas of the tent. The night has been uneventful. I walk out into the chill air, pulling my cloak around my shoulders. There is no sign of any darkling lurking about, but I cast a sensing meditation before leaving the ring of the warding braziers. I sense nothing, but neither did I find anything last night even though I could still feel its power. Reaching out into the pre-dawn dimness for any sign of danger, I am soon fairly confident there is nothing hostile nearby. I search the contents of my satchel for my woodsmans’ axe. Finding it, I walk into the trees to search for a good straight piece of hardwood suitable for a spear-shaft. Soon, I find a young birch that will do nicely, and chop it down. Birch wood is strong and supple, difficult to break. It would be better if I had time to let it dry, but I have to make do with what I have. I hack away its limbs, then carry the pole back to camp. The nomads are sleeping later than I’m accustomed to, but I find most people do. A sturdy woodsknife would be better for this work than my fine-bladed long knife, but I strip the bark with the thickest part of its blade that is close to the hilt. Then I whittle down the stumps of limbs and other irregularities so they are smooth with the rest of the trunk to let my hands move easily along the length of the pole, and round off the thicker butt of the staff.

When I am finished with the pole, the nomads are still not yet awake. I should have gotten the spearhead from them last night, so I could be on my way. I practice some quarterstaff drills that will be equally useful with a spear. I’m starting to get impatient, so I pack my gear and drill a bit more. Then finally they awaken and we take care of the business with the spearhead. Finally, we clasp hands and wish each other a safe journey. I take the time to trim the narrow end of the pole to fit the spearhead and pin it with a small iron nail the merchant provided. I test the weight and find it acceptable. Then I shoulder my satchel and resume my journey.

The spear is relatively short, about as long as a quarterstaff, and while the shaft is lighter than a quarterstaff, the added weight of the spearhead balances that difference. I’ve never carried a spear before and find there is a sense of authority as I walk the road with it over my shoulder. I feel dangerous. It is a dangerous feeling. Far safer to lurk in the shadows, silent, unheard and unseen. But I like the feeling.

The river valley worms its way into low mountains at the juncture of the Norgaard range with a chain of low peaks and rugged hills which branch off from the rest of the range and extend south. The valley becomes a canyon with sloping sides covered by tall evergreen trees. Massive rock outcrops fringed by stunted and twisted evergreens interrupt the wooded slopes at intervals, becoming more frequent as the river climbs higher. Below the trail, the river rushes pale blue-green and white, crashing over falls and swirling around boulders. I start to feel a prickling sensation in my neck, the feeling that something is watching me. I pause to perform a meditation of sensing, reaching out into the woods, feeling the trees, the woodland things, the hills and rocks, searching for any sign of danger. I can find none. I mutter a curse. I’m sure whatever the thing is, it is out there.

Soon the river branches, with one fork flowing from the west, from the direction of the Bloodlands, and the other from the north and the main part of the Norgaard range. The trail winds halfway down to the river bed, then crosses the river on a massive stone bridge built of huge giant-hewn blocks of stone. The largest stones are as tall as I am and twice as long. At the other end of the bridge, the trail branches too. There is a camping spot at the crossroads. On the hills above, a ruin juts upward, silhouetted against the sky. The nomads thought the beast might lair there, but I don’t want to be caught in a place where there is no room for warding braziers when the sun goes down. As I camp, the thing’s aura of darkness and silence presses in on me despite my wards and my initiate’s defenses. Eyes haunt the edges of the firelight. It has three eyes, I am sure of it. And the hint of some spiny shape in the darkness, long, low-slung, prowling the edges of the warded area with graceful patience.

As I set out the next morning, the mountains grow more rugged. The trail is forced to climb in a series of long, snakelike switchbacks while the river descends the hillside in roaring cascades. Though I never see it in daylight, I am sure that whatever has been stalking me is still with me. I feel the constant prickle of nervous apprehension.

The path runs up against a sheer granite cliff which continues for some distance on that side, and the builders of the trail were forced to cross the river to continue. An enormous boulder the size of a townhouse stands in the stream, and an ancient stone bridge is been built atop it, crossing the river in two great spans. The base of the boulder is secured by masonry to prevent erosion from undermining it. Logs have washed up against the obstacle in the flow of the river. One log is the massive gray-white carcass of a nearly whole tree, roots and all. A few smaller logs and branches form a tangled mass against the upstream side of the boulder. I cross the bridge and continue to climb, my legs burning. The steep canyon blocks direct sunlight, and the prickling sensation of malevolence is constant. Several times I feel like I have even sensed its dark, hushing aura dampening my senses, but my sensing meditations still find nothing. I’m sure it is watching me, despite it being daylight, even though I have failed to sense it every time I have tried. And it seems to be becoming more aggressive in the shadows of this narrow ravine. I am grateful when I find the next spot wide enough to camp and put up my braziers. As the eyes stalk the darkness beyond, I try my sensing meditation and still sense only emptiness from the direction of the eyes. I’ve never heard of such a thing. My heart thuds in my chest as I contemplate the danger this creature’s power poses. Even with the wards and my initiate’s training, I don’t know if I could survive if it attacked.

The next morning, I break camp and continue my climb up the winding trail. For the first time in days, I sense no threat, nothing stalking my travels. Perhaps it laired in the ruin as the merchants expected and I have left its range behind. Or perhaps it knows my route and is preparing an ambush. Either way, what choice do I have but to continue? I can’t return to the city, and I don’t have enough provisions to spend the winter in the woods.

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