The javelin flew straight into the panther’s neck, suddenly arresting its predatory attack on Habrok. The ranger was traversing a particularly tricky part of the rocky terrain on his way back to the party, and the deadly animal was perfectly positioned on an outcrop above him. Fortunately, Astrid was watching the heights. The feline hunter had made its way swiftly and silently to its position, the animal’s stealthy approach helped by the numerous small crags on the mountainside. The distance was far for the normal range of a short spear, but Astrid’s abilities had obviously improved.
As the projectile hit, the panther was violently thrown sideways for a few feet, and a large spray of blood showed how the lethally accurate strike was accompanied by a small explosion at the point of impact.
Asem’s teaching no doubt. That burst of magical energy was not part of her repertoire before, observed startled Tyler.
Habrok looked up when he got near the party, a spurt of speed immediately marking his movements after Astrid flung her weapon. After the ranger saw the body of the panther, he gave the Valkyrie a wave.
“That was a close one, sire. Animals here are more cunning, larger, and quieter than usual. But at least they look normal,” said Habrok as he steered his mount beside Tyler. The mage was standing, having dismounted when Habrok went to scout ahead.
“I really can’t say if it’s the stray energies of the Void Lands or the Barrens, Habrok. But you’re right. At least they look normal. There are even a few trees on the heights. Normal trees which are immobile and do not walk,” replied Tyler.
“Ah, that would be a difficult proposition, sire,” remarked Tyndur. “I wouldn’t know which branch to chop. Fire would be more effective though, but it would take a damnably long time to bring one own.”
“We would sense such a being well before we come close, sire. They’re of magical origin, but there are several kinds. In Hellas, they have dryads and hamadryads. Among the Romanii, they have querquetulanae. In the north, they have hyldemoer. All deemed as nymphs. Lore mentions of demons occupying trees such as the hantu tinggi. Each kind has its own characteristics and weaknesses,” said Asem.
“In our land, we also have such things,” added Kobu. “The jubokko, for instance. A vampire tree. Good thing they’re immobile and the skeletons on the ground is a dead give-away. Miserable pun intended.”
“Right. Lesson learned. We have to be careful about trees,” commented Tyler, anxious to have Habrok’s report. A few days of inaction had gotten the party into a talking mood. Not that it was bad, but it was distracting for the mage at times. He looked at Habrok.
“My report, sire. We’re close to the marker that Balashi fellow told me about. An enormous warrior statue on top of a mountain. That would mean the first of the Monarchy’s forts facing the Barren Lands is only several miles away. Time to release the horses and cross the Barrens,” said Habrok.
“It would have been nice to be mounted all the way,” mused Tyler.
“I agree, sire. But the fodder issue…”
“I know, Habrok. There’s no assurance that we’ll find food for the horses once we cross,” answered the mage.
“At least the horses would find their way back through the forts. The rune plates on their harnesses will make sure of that,” replied Habrok.
“Too bad we don’t have similar rune plates for our own use,” laughed Astrid. “Though my sister should give you one, Habrok.”
Sniggers and suppressed laughter sounded. Everybody now knew of Habrok’s dalliance with Astrid’s sister, resulting in a son.
“Hey, I already accepted he’s my son. I can’t deny it with the kid bearing the same handsome looks,” protested Habrok, the reply resulting in more hilarity.
“Let’s camp here for now,” declared Tyler. “We can release the horses after we give them the last of the supplied fodder. Then we make the arrangements to cross the Barrens. Astrid, please look for a safe spot. Preferably with no panthers.”
The companions got down from their mounts while Astrid went to scout for a campsite. Kobu and Tyndur went to check the surrounding area, while Asem and Habrok remained with the mage.
“Now comes the hard part. Again. At least this part is the narrowest area for crossing the Barrens,” commented the priestess.
“That’s according to the Girnita, priestess. And based on their lore. Nobody from the Monarchy had been able to cross in living memory,” warned Habrok.
“Let’s hope Girnita Balashi’s information is accurate. I would hate to stay in the Barrens for a period longer than what we need to reach Hellas,” said Tyler.
“At least we have kept to the borders of the Monarchy until this point. Mountainous, rocky terrain for the most part, but essentially natural landscape after we left the Void Lands. Well, a few miles after we left those cursed lands behind,” remarked the ranger.
Tyler absently nodded and examined the unusual landscape. They had been traveling north for five days now since the time the party left the destroyed shrine of the Followers of Zin. Aside from the panther Astrid just killed and a few large predatory birds which looked like the misbegotten offspring of a mating between a vulture and condor, the journey was so far uneventful. Arrows and a few attack spells drove the avians off, killing a number of the huge raptors.
To ordinary eyes, the land awaiting them would appear as a typical desolate plain bordered by mountains and hills. But to the mage’s enhanced eyesight, the area of the Barrens, viewed from a distance, was blurred by a slight, distorted magical field. It was as if he beheld the land through a pair of graded eyeglasses.
We transported into that mess. And now, we’re going to walk through it. I hope it doesn’t cause mutations. I’m looking forward to having healthy children, Tyler thought with dismay.
Night passed without incident. Nary errant phantom or a prowling beast disturb their sleep.
“Tell me, Asem,” asked Tyler as the party was making its way down the crags of the mountainside to the bleak land below, “will the energies of the Barrens affect us? I mean, change anything in our physical make-up?”
“I don’t believe so, sire,” came the answer, “for one, the bones of the inhabitants of this world have a different kind of magic running in their bodies. The body of the ordinary visitor is incapable of harboring any magic. Of course, if one stays long enough in these forsaken land, it is inevitable that prolonged exposure to strange energies will have an effect on their physical and mental condition. Years, decades perhaps is needed. As to what changes, I really can’t say. The lore I studied only makes oblique references to the energies of the Barrens.”
“Thanks, Asem,” said the mage.
“Is she right, guys? How about me? My bone and physical structure had been altered,” Tyler asked his guides.
“You’re safe, Elder. The power you see are but wisps of energy, too weak to affect humans. Unless, as the priestess mentioned, you plan to stay here for a very long time. Your body is also permeated with the magic of this world. Your bones have also been altered to accepted only Elder energy,” Hal clarified.
“Good to know, Hal. Observed anything about this land we’re going to enter?”
“Unfortunately, none. These wisps of energy and the feeble residual energy of the ground make it difficult to sense anything beyond visual range. You could send out a scrying spell, but there’s no assurance it would work. Either the land will absorb it or the vagrant streams will interfere with it.”
“That sucks, Hal. But that’s our the situation now. We just need to be doubly careful.”
“But from our vantage point on these heights, it appears the land is deserted as of the present. No animal or creature could be seen though we can’t speak for burrowing monsters,” voiced X.
“Nice one, X. I forgot about those things,” replied the mage with a laugh, but not without some unease.
“They’re devilishly difficult to anticipate considering the ground absorbs ordinary magical energy,” added Hal.
“Oh, come on! Don’t make me more nervous than I am now,” protested Tyler.
The two AIs kept their silence while the mage continued down the rocky terrain. His companions were already waiting for him and had adopted their usual defensive formation. As soon as Tyler joined them, Habrok set off while the morning sun finally made its presence felt.
Water issues again in a day or two, thought Tyler. I hope H can find a water source.
The party trudged on through the day, taking short breaks. Habrok was indefatigable. The ranger only took a rest of several minutes and then took off to survey their surroundings. Tyler was starting to be puzzled by the man’s continuing reports of the lack of animals or bizarre creatures around them. Even if the party made use of available cover, any stony ground they found while traveling, and used small mounds as their resting areas, the absence of beasts in their surroundings was making the mage uneasy. Before, Habrok could report on sighting herds or other animals in the distance.
They made camp on a lonely hill on the evening of the first day. Habrok and Astrid strongly suggested not to continue in the dark. More dangerous predators prefer the darkness and the two didn’t believe that the rule would be different in the Barrens. As the party finished with their evening meal, Tyler asked the group if they have noticed the absence of beasts and creatures. Apparently, everybody did. Though Kobu made the uncomfortable observation that from his experience, the absence of the usual predators meant the presence of a more dangerous one. With that discomforting thought, Tyler got ready to go to bed. As usual, he was excused from the watch rotation. The mage stood in the darkness, gazing at the land around them. The light from the two moons of Adar barely penetrated whatever miasma covered the Barrens. The complete silence was unnerving. No distant sounds of animals fighting or even greeting the coming of the night. He looked at his companions. Those not on sentry duty were already fast asleep. Tyler went to his bedroll. Surprisingly, despite all his fears and concerns, he fell asleep the moment he closed his eyes.
Everybody woke up late the following day. A puzzling fact which bothered the mage. It had never happened before. He could hear Habrok complaining about finding it difficult to stay awake. The rest were also saying on how sleepy they still felt. Uneasy was the common description for the sleep they had. Tyler was sufficiently concerned about it to ask Asem to check on the condition of the party. But the priestess found nothing out of the ordinary except that the bodies of the companions demanded more rest.
“But we had an uneventful and I should say, a restful journey so far, priestess. No battles, no extremely dangerous monsters to fight,” remarked the mage.
“It also puzzles me, sire. We all shouldn’t be in need of sleep. The party is not tired, only sleepy,” replied Asem.
“Anyway, it’s strange enough to be a concern. Please watch out for any inexplicable event or circumstance. Something is affecting us,” cautioned Tyler.
The morning of the second day was also uneventful. No predators or strange creatures bothered the party. But their noon break was marked by yawning and complaints from the companions about needing to nap. The priestess objected, noting that continuing physical exertion was required to counteract whatever was affecting them. With that comment, the companions took note of Asem’s statement. With a nod, Tyler gave the priestess the permission to voice the concern about the phenomenon.
“Is it magic?” asked Tyndur. “In my previous journey through these lands, I have never encountered such a condition. Fear would be the primary emotion. Dread and anxiety enough to freeze one’ balls. Sorry about that, ladies.”
“No offense taken, Tyndur. Though my concern would be for Habrok. Sleepiness is not a good condition for a scout. I would volunteer to take his place, but I am also afflicted by the same condition,” said Astrid.
“Not magic,” said Asem. “We would have felt it. We are all sensitive to such things, though in varying degrees. But it’s a pervasiveness in our bodies, natural in origin but resulting in an unnatural condition.”
“Any idea where it’s coming from?” asked Tyler.
“That’s what’s strange, sire. There are no traces of it around us. If anything had affected us, it must have happened before we noticed it,” said the priestess.
“To be on the safe side, let us assume it’s an attack,” replied Tyler. “We need a place to recover from this condition. We cannot continue our journey blundering around because of the demand of our bodies for sleep. What do you suggest?”
The group stayed quiet for a while, thinking about what Tyler declared. Then Kobu spoke up.
“I agree, sire. It’s an insidious way of weakening us. As to who, let me repeat what I said earlier – there’s a more dangerous predator around. Or even predators. With our magical abilities limited by the peculiar nature of the Barrens, we are not in the best position to defend ourselves while walking through this land.”
“A more dangerous predator, huh? It would be nice to meet such a distinguished personage,” said Tyndur. “But I agree, we find a defensible place to recover before we continue with our trek.”
The rest nodded their acquiescence.
“It’s decided then. Let’s find a good defensive position, preferably a high location, hole up there, and recover. If anybody is going to attack us, we would be ready,” said Tyler.
Suddenly, as everybody got ready to leave the small knoll, the party was suddenly engulfed by a massive cloud of foul-smelling green smoke. Whatever was in the thick fog greatly irritated the eyes. As Tyler rubbed his tear-filled eyeballs, he felt an irresistible desire to sleep. At the same time, the mage felt an enormous surge of magical power. Immediately after, he perceived shapes through the thin outer layer of the cloud. Humanoid forms were approaching their position.
Blearily, he looked at his companions. Habrok and Astrid were down. The einherjar and the exile were struggling to stay awake as was Asem. The priestess was casting a wind spell to disperse the cloud. But Tyler could see that Asem was buckling under the effects of the fog. Tyler was also losing the battle to stay alert. In desperation, he cast two force spells, in chakri form, around the mound. He couldn’t see their enemies but assumed they were all around the party. The sleepy mage then followed up with a lightning cloud attack on where he saw the approaching figures. As he lost consciousness, Tyler desperately called out to his guides for help.
Dryads – Greek. Tree spirits.
Hamadryads – Greek. A particular form of dryad who are bound to a specific tree.
Querquetulanae – The Roman counterpart of dryads.
Hyldemoer – The Norse version of tree spirits or nymphs.
Hantu tinggi – Southeast Asian mythology. Demons who possess palm or coconut trees. Lore mentions hantu tinggi are giant versions of the plants they occupy and kill those who stare at them. Other myths also say they are portals to other lands. The writer would like to request the adventurous reader, if still alive, who goes in search of these creatures to please inform him which myth is correct.