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Of Crows and Journals
Posted on 10/03/2007 06:23 PM CDT by the Webstaff

‘Ware the mist that creeps at night,
Stealing the children without a fight
‘Ware the deep black crows on the poles,
Watching the Soul Harvester reap his souls
‘Ware the talisman bright, strong, and green,
And ‘ware the sound of a demon’s keen
-- a Velathae children's rhyme

In recent days, strange feathers have been discovered scattered all across the continent of Elanith. When touched, they transform into ethereal crows that take to the skies, cawing for help... cawing for someone to "Save them." These crows have returned, and with them they've brought pieces of parchment from an old, forgotten journal.

It is in this journal that answers lie... for the Soul Harvester has returned, that you can't deny.

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There are only two of us left, myself and Nigrimi. He thinks I do not see the way that he watches my every move, but I do and soon I think there will be only he. Our party was twelve when we set out from Nydds the first time; who could have guessed it would have brought us full circle? This accursed task has cost us too much. I can feel it in my skin and in my ears, calling to me, taunting me with its relief. If only I could find it, find the answer and be rid of the decay. Nigrimi brings me supper and I watch him shuffle through our meager camp. He reminds me of Asull, who was the first to go...

Asull was determined to make the rope bridge work. It filled him with a deep passion that none of us had seen in him before. The want of the bridge began to cause him to twist and turn in his sleep. There were times, on our trek to the northern mountains, that we would wake to find his hands curled into perverted knots and his back bowed at an impossible, agonizing angle. He would reach for the sky in his sleep and his body would stay in the mangled position until we found him that way in the morning. Many times we thought him dead, many more times we wished him to be. But as soon as one of us would touch him, he would come alive. The howl that ripped from his lips was nothing compared to the hollow moans he made during his death.

The bridge he'd been dreaming of, that had haunted his waking and sleeping moments, was found five months into the journey. It spanned the Great Valley of the Northern Mountains. We could see it for days, and this only strove to draw Asull deeper into the growing madness. He began to cut boards long before we could see its details with our own eyes, long before it stopped being a smudge on the horizon. Asull dragged more than his weight in boards and fought off any that would try to help him or ease his torment. We did not understand that our pact had assigned our fates, how could we have known what it would cost us?

We camped as we always had, but the bridge was too close. We did not hear him leave in the mist-filled night, but his screams would echo with us for hours after his departing. I think it was those screams that caused Vefmur to begin to crack, or maybe it was that Asull had finally had his moment with the bridge that he'd dreamed about. I do not know exactly what caused Vefmur to cry in the night, and I do not know what caused Asull to obsess the way he did, but if it hadn't been for him we'd have never made it across that bridge.

Harvester, Harvester, come out to play...

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Once we started across it, Vefmur began to despair. The distance was incredible, its length beyond imagining. We walked hand over hand over that rope and plank bridge, stepping on the boards that Asull had replaced. It took us fully two days. Vefmur panicked on that first night when he could see neither ahead nor behind us. During the second night, as we gazed tiredly at the distance, Vefmur could stand the strain of it no more and ran ahead of us towards our destination. The mist swallowed him. When we found him in the morning he was frozen solid, his body clutching the bare rock facing of the wall. At his feet we found Asull, his face split into a twisted grin of pure joy or agony. There are times in a man's life when one expression can be confused for the other. This was one of those times. Asull was bent over with that expression that is neither and both upon his face, fitting the last board onto the bridge. He was forever frozen with the bridge he adored.

Meinri was the next of us to go. She had been hurt deep in her spirit by the sights she had seen and the cries of the men who lay frozen above us. She cried most of the way down the face on crooked steps carved by some enormous hand. The wind tore at her, tore at us, and tossed us into the mountain as if we were rag-dolls. Halfway down the snows started, and their icy tendrils lashed out our faces as if they were nothing. For eight days we traveled down that mountain and by the time we reached the bottom our faces were nothing but raw meat, bloody and torn.

We were giddy when we saw something other then grey and white -- giddy to see the green meadow spread before us. The last bit of the climb was more run than walk and our bodies cried from the effort even as our minds cried at the relief to see that warm spot. Meinri took the lead, for the first time in days seeming more like her old self. How could we have known that the traps would start this soon? Or maybe, we were naive to think that the traps hadn't started the day we left Nydds. The ground opened up and swallowed her. One moment she was crying for joy, and then next the cry was cut off and lost to utter silence.

It was Nigrimi that found the clever contraption, and it was Nigrimi that would keep track of the traps. I wonder if it was for that reason that Gnymr began to watch him. Or maybe, it was after we lost Baeclen. Beaclen, who had never wanted to join this expedition and had only come because his brother was going, maybe it was his own guilt that drove him to attack Nigrimi once we were in the caves. Either way, whatever the answer is, it was clear that through the tunnels there would only be six of us. It would have been seven, but Heapleni would not heed our caution and cried out for help in the darkness that stood before the yawning mouth of the cave. She did not fall to a trap or an obsession, nor the dark or jealousy. Heapleni fell to the yeti. Nothing we could do could save her, nothing.

We six, now half of what had set out from Nydds, roamed through the caverns of Ziristal certain that our losses and efforts would bear fruit. Nigrimi kept us safe, his ever-vigilant eye upon the walls and ceilings, the floors and the very air. He knew the signs now and his keen sight kept us from falling to any more of the traps that Heglaenmri had assigned to this place some thousands of years past.

You can imagine our disappointment when we found the center and the scrolls were gone. We slept in that empty tomb of a library, the weight of our defeat sinking deep into our souls. It filled us with a cold so deep that our minds began to play tricks on us. We saw Assul, saw him climbing his bridge and arranging his boards. We saw Gnymer attacking us, not just Nigrimi as had happened, but each of us in turn. It was as we watched Heapleni mauled by a yeti that we knew was long dead at the top of the cave that the green mist began to surround us.

Cold and damp, the mist had a mind of its own, it had a taste of its own, and it had voices of its own. Many voices, some familiar and some not, called to us asking us what it was we sought, what it was that drove us. I dared not speak the truth of my desire to it, I dared not tell it, "I am mortal and human and wish to live as long as the gods." But I could feel the words in my throat threatening to come out, threatening to rip their way up my esophagus and past my swollen tongue. I tasted blood and knew that I had physically stopped the cry from leaving me. Around me similar groans proved that others had done the same.

Jeafgri was not so strong, or perhaps he was not so lucky, or perhaps even yet he merely saved himself from a worse fate. Maybe it was just his turn to commit something to this quest, something to our cause. We didn't know it would be his life. The mist filled him. It seeped into every pore of his flesh, into his eyes and into throat. We could hear him choking to death on the raw power of the mist and could do nothing but listen to his sickening, squishy death. Once the mist was satiated it animated our friend. Malniv purged the meager remains of her stomach upon the floor, her body unwilling to grasp the sick, twisted image that the mist was trying to show us.

And like a twisted puppeteer, the mist moved Jeafgri about the chamber until his jerking movements had brought him into contact with the far wall. We watched, transfixed in horror, as the mist commandeered Jeafgri's body and began to write upon the walls with his blood. The language was some twisted combination of common and elven with a smattering of Saramar runes thrown in. It told the tale of Heglaenmri's precious trove being pilfered by crazed humanoids that had come to Zilistral after the fall of the Kannalan Empire. The items we sought were handed down from family to family, each trying to find the secret and each not knowing that the other had the pieces that were needed to complete the prize. The scrolls went to Nydds where we had started from, but the talisman went to a family by the name of Engvredille.

All that way! All that way to lose not one but seven of our number! And in our haste to leave that ill-gotten mist we lost Sphemina as well! My beloved Sphemina, it is you that I will miss the most. It is your eyes and the softness they held for me alone. How, how could we have gotten so far and yet I lost you anyway! The anguish of it ate at my heart even as we plodded out of those dreaded steppes with the wind lashing at us and biting into our skin. We passed graves and frozen corpses only to find ourselves back at that thrice cursed bridge.

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street.
Come with the Mist, come at his call,
Feed him your souls down by the wall.
Curled in his fist, give him your fears,
Stay out late, and give him your tears.
Harvester, Harvester, come out to play,
The crows are all waiting to take you away.
-- a Velathae children's rhyme

We crossed the bridge with sorrow in our hearts, and our footsteps heavy. We returned with answers but lacking our friends, those we had come from our homes with, who we had gone to college with, and who we had loved. Upon returning to Nydds we spoke to no one. Not a soul. And too, none spoke to us. It was as if we were half men and women returned from something that would haunt us for years. And haunt us it did. We four could feel the mist clinging to us, driving us on to find Heglaenmri's scrolls and talisman. Driving us, driving us, driving us to the edge of our sanity and sapping us of our strength.

Every floor of the Library at Nydds was searched, monks and librarians each keeping from us as if we were cursed. And perhaps we were. We four pored over every scrap of paper, every piece of knowledge. It had taken us two years to plan our expedition and two more to travel and return to the beginning, but in the Library it took us five years. Five years of ancient tombs, of eating only enough to survive but little more, of drinking to keep us from turning to dust on the pages we read, and of sleeping only briefly. We became wraiths in that library, haunting the oldest and most decayed texts. It was no surprise to us that a paper fungus claimed Malniv two years into our search.

Nigrimi kept us going. He drove us the way a man at the edge of an avalanche is driven to run. Always we felt death lapping at our heels, and always Nigrimi kept us going and kept us one step ahead. We searched the catacombs for months, scrabbling like the rats around us across the broken stone and rot, the filth and decay. Hunger gnawed at our bellies and backs, but we were driven to find the scrolls. Driven by Nigrimi and driven by the deep need to get the task done for us, even those of us that had not survived its undertaking.

The night the scrolls were found, Slemdh was taken from us. We were weak! So weak, you must understand, and I plead with you to understand. We could not see everything, could not understand the entire scope of what was before us and what was yet to come. Slemdh was first to the sarcophagus and so he was first to feel the lich's touch. How could we have known that the Library of Nydds would harbor such a thing? But we should have known, we should have remembered what it had done back in the ruins of Zilistral. Remembered how it had used Jaefgri and then deposited his husk like it was nothing.

This is how Slemdh fell, empty and nothing. Nigrimi was quick to destroy the lich after that, while I held Slemdh and watched his eyes grow vacant. There is nothing that can take you back from that, nothing. This is why we had created the task! To escape death! And look at what it had cost us, what it had taken from us.

We were twelve when we set out from Nydds the first time, now there were just the two of us. Nigrimi began to remind me of Allus more and more each day. Allus, who was the first of us to go to death. The first of us to fall to the all consuming dark of our ill begotten task. Allus, who was the first of us to taste its defeat. Nigrimi watched me, he watched me always and it had been like this since we crawled from the catacombs. I think soon he will kill me and then, there will be just him.

My beloved Sphemina, what have we wrought? How could trying to escape death cause so much of it. The deeds I have done, the things I have seen, I am not sure that I will ever make it to your side for them, and they will haunt me always.

We left Nydds for a second time, this time to a village called Velathae. This is where the talisman is, where Nigrimi drives me. I have never felt as alone as I do now, never felt so out of peace and plagued. He will have what he has come for and he will drive on and on into the dark night taking and seeking that one thing. It seemed too easy when we got there, too simple to suddenly have pieced together. The village was just sitting there in the morning hours and it seemed filled with a peace that I possessed once only at your side, Sphemina.

We stole quietly into the side of the hill beneath the great tower and we moved as nothing more then shadows. So many turns and twists stretched before us, so many paths to take but we pushed on with only the dead voices to guide us and the task to fuel us. We came to the room that the talisman was housed in, some forgotten laboratory, or maybe it was just a room. The despair has reached me so deeply that all I see now is sinister, but the horrors to come would make the past ones pale and shudder in their wake.

Nigrimi clutched the talisman. He had been full of an unhealthy energy that I could not maintain for some time, as if he could sense that the moment was finally at hand. As his fingers curled around it I could feel the air being sucked from my body, ripped violently from my chest. I could not gasp or draw breath for several moments, and indeed it was like the very breath of life was drawn into that vile talisman, that monument of our pain and suffering. I know not what happened next for my vision had gone black.

When I came to, Nigrimi was grinning above me in the glow of an eerie green light. He called me little brother and drew me to his side. He had not called me such since the days of our childhood and it made me wonder if perhaps the drive had left him, but then his next words would show me that the man I knew was gone and all that remained was the ugly beast created by the task.

He said that there was much to do and I watched in horror as he stroked the mist. The mist! The mist that had used up our Jaefgri, the mist that had probably taken you from me! He stroked it and I felt the bile rise in my throat. I choked it down for fear of what my revulsion would cause me.

During those days I lived as a zombie, a half man of disjointed sleep and starvation. Despair was my friend as I watched him, night after night, call to the mist and release it into the streets of the quiet village. Each night it hunted and haunted, each morning returning with the innocent children of the village. In revulsion, frozen with fear, I would watch as the mist pulled the soft skin from their tiny bones and drained their screaming souls into the talisman.

Nigrimi went slow at first, but grew impatient in the end. He wanted results faster, quicker. He needed to know and feel. At first it was two children a night, and then it was four. Each night the amount doubled, each night more were taken into the barrow and each night I watched in frozen half-dead fear that I too would be next.

When the hundredth child had been harvested for its soul, Nigrimi let the crows in. The stench was unbearable, the rot and disease that had filled these halls, these halls that echoed with the dead and that were always that horrid mist green. He let them in and they consumed the rotting meat of the innocent that he had destroyed.

For every soul he had taken he had been granted two years by this strange mist, this disgusting mist of death and vile and horror. Two years to live past his life, two years to live longer. This was the price, Sphemina! We went in search of some mystical means to extend our life so that we humans could love and live as long as an elf and look at what it had brought us! Had we but known when we set out for this task! Had we but known the price it would take we would have abandoned it! None of the storybooks prepared us for this; nothing in history could have shown us the grizzly truth as these long nights have! Like children following breadcrumbs home, we followed Heglaenmri's trail, and now his curse was unleashed upon the quiet village of Valathae!

It was as I watched the crows feasting on the carrion that I began to grow brave, began to feel like the man I was merely a sickly shadow of. I came to understand then, that night, what had to be done. I will destroy the talisman, sweet Sphemina. I will rid this village of it and of Nigrimi. Maybe then I will find peace at your side... If I am worthy... If I succeed.

The Soul Harvester Comes...

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