The Heart That Guides
The Cheolian mines did not experience the flow of time in a manner typical of the rest of the world. Within the greater depths of its spiraling labyrinths, the sun failed to stretch its light, and even in the mouth of the volcano itself it was blotted heavily by the choking sulfuric smoke that billowed up from the swelling lava below. As such, the only light and warmth given was borne from that very magma, an artificial sun that offered neither a taste of optimism nor a breath of comfort. And it burned day through to the night, never easing, so that any who entered would quickly find their chronological senses in utter ruin. It was not night and day that carried a slave through his work, but darkness and light; for darkness, the confines of one’s cell, a slave understood to mean rest, and light, in the volcanic pit and tunnels, that meant pain and anguish.
The relative beauty of the glistening ore and precious rock lining the walls had faded quickly from the outset of the party’s interment there, and so much so that Shyrrik began to develop a hatred for the sight of it. Such an absurdity, that, to despise the one aesthetic pleasure afforded to him in these doleful caves, yet for the ranger it was as if he was being mocked in a most malicious way, tantalized with a vision of serenity that would never be granted to his body or mind. There was no such respite here. Senses became dull, days became work shifts, and whatever meager significance any of their lives might’ve had beyond this quarry had been crushed upon their entrance into it.
The half-elf did trifle in the beginning, lashing back against unfair treatment and giving aid to those in a greater state of suffering than he. Slipping scraps of food to the starving, assisting in the excavation of a stubborn rock, even physically confronting the posted guards in the face of disparate punishment, all were such things that he did in the name of goodness alone. Diligent was he for his companions, as well, and ever vicious in their protection. Yet as time wore on, the ranger’s mind, his body, his spirit, were all worn away just as the rock in the cave walls. It was his subconscious expectation that their stay in such a place would be relatively brief, whether by amnesty or by their own will to escape. But with each passing day, these hopes grew dimmer, and a latent sense of futility began to fester in the corners of the woodsman’s mind. Senses became dulled, the body exhausted, and the nerve to keep the wits sharp decaying.
He spoke often with the Entertainer at first, with whom he was quartered. Their conversations began as plots and stratagems, assured of their own competency to put an end to this business of slavery. Yet as they staggered through each day, their scheming began to tire, and they instead spoke of other things. Pasts, love lives, arts, future plans – anything that came to mind was a distraction from their unfortunate reality. In time, even this idle talk became stale, and with the erosion of their strength came a heavy silence that consumed them in their cell like a stench, and so it may have been. The rotting of their souls.
Complacency began to set in for the ranger. The will to resist the guards and their brutish manners crumbled beneath the weight of the labor and the consequences for dissent. Even the instincts to shelter his friends from harm were ground out rudely at each discovery of his disobedience; his efforts were made especially difficult by the increasing lengths of time between opportunities to interact with them, for when the guards became cognizant of their intimacy, it was used as further leverage to enact punishment upon them when they would dare to find themselves particularly bold. Shyrrik became increasingly worried for the two girls, Aedra and Ejnar, for whom he felt particularly responsible. They were kept from him for great stretches of time, and the frustration of having been left wondering for their safety often came out in violent bursts, which were commonly directed against whatever patch of ore he might’ve been picking at that day, and were a sight of great amusement to the stationed patrols who would laugh merrily and encourage him with vapid assurances of the females’ great suffering…and not merely limited to the toil of the mine. It took every ounce of restraint in Shyrrik’s body to prevent himself from crushing his hands around the nearest guard’s neck until his spine separated from his brain.
So too was he constantly scanning the volcano’s mouth for a sign of his wolven companion, whom had been reduced to a beast of burden for the guards to extricate the most unwieldy hunks of rock and to haul them up and down the spiraling catwalks that lined the volcanic walls. Being the greatest feral beast of this particular operation, he was worked to a greater extent than perhaps any other creature, and driven similarly by the most brutal whipping and spurring that the guards could muster. A prideful animal through and through, it was only under the strict order of his master to heel that he held out for so long without inviting greater consequence upon himself. Shyrrik could sense the pain in the wolf’s body; his knees deteriorated, his footpads cut and bleeding incessantly, his torso and hindquarters bruised and burned from the guards’ violent motivations and from the scalding magma. The half-elf ached with guilt at every instance of abuse, yet his silent vows of vengeance on their tormentors came and went without action.
It seemed, however, that the wolf was not so devoid of will as his master.
One day, Shyrrik was being led at the arms by a pair of guards to his site of work. He pained greatly and his head hung low and listless, his feet halfway to merely dragging after him. A strong series of impacts against the rocky soil beneath caught his attention, to which he lifted his head and caught sight of the wolf being driven in the opposite direction. Its paws thundered against the ground heavily, indicative of its inability to carry itself with normal lupine grace. This was the nearest he had been to his companion since their initial separation. As they drew closer to each other, the ranger caught the eye of his wolf, as did the wolf stare back and lift his ears with happiness, tail dusting the ground excitedly behind him. Shyrrik’s own darkly colored eyes had clouded over with the spirit of defeat, and yet as he looked on into the gaze of his partner, such cynicism was not reflected. The half-elf saw with unmistakable clarity a healthy soul brimming with hope, seeming to stand in defiance of his master’s forlorn concessions. And as well, he saw a pity and a sympathy, and it was for he and his broken resolve. It further embittered the half-elf that he could not assuage the wolf with even the subtlest demonstration of strength. He simply stared on, as the wolf passed by, and as he was hustled further onward to the day’s mining site.
Suddenly, the wolf stopped. His captors were jarred at their hold on his reins, and after a moment’s pause and confusion, they began angrily mushing him along with rough tugs at his body brace and copious amounts of threats and expletives thrown. As they failed to unbalance the massive wolven beast, he kept his gaze in lock with that of his master’s. The guards that held Shyrrik had by now taken notice of the commotion, and stopped to observe. Shyrrik continued to stare at the wolf, now curiously unsettled by his companion’s odd behavior. He sought between a blue eye and brown, the lupine’s head massive enough that one could not simply stare between and meet its gaze as would be commonplace with a human partner in conversation. It was then that Shyrrik became aware of something, though what it was he could not discern, but staring at his partner now with eyes opened wide he was privy to an aura of sentience that he had never before been keen enough to see. Or, it may have been, that a foreign presence now inhabited his wolf in this most pivotal moment, and the archer took notice now of a gravity that made itself decidedly clear.
And the half-elf did swear, he heard words in the elven tongue communicated to him then.
One of the guards drew his club, and arched it above his head in preparation to deliver a forceful strike against the wolf’s leg. As he readied his weapon, the wolf, a docile creature in this ordeal thus far, took a great inward heave, bared his glistening canines, and let forth with a great and monstrous roar of deafening proportion that drove even the ambient rumble of the volcano from audibility. All within the immediate vicinity were startled to their very bones, and as the threatening guard watched on in horror, the snarling wolf came down upon his shoulder with its massive jaw, serrating through his sinew and ripping it from its socket with a revolting spray of blood and viscera. Had the roar not immediately secured the attention of the entire volcanic pit, the guard’s agonized scream most assuredly would’ve done the job, as he toppled to the ground and writhed on the stinging soil, bleeding an unholy torrent of blood onto the ground. The wolf spat his severed arm between his forepaws and howled to the skies above, chilling the already terror-stricken cores of those in its sight. Then, the wolf was on the next, biting into his torso and spearing each internal organ with an array of razored fangs, to lurch him from the ground and fling him in the air across the rocky expanse. The bloodlusted lupine accosted every nearby member of the slave guard, attacking with a rage unseen by even Shyrrik in their past encounters, tearing into flesh with a savagery that spoke of a refusal to submit to bondage.
The initial shock from the sudden display of violence eventually faded, and from somewhere a horn-like sound bellowed in alarm. From every orifice in the cave wall streamed dozens of guards, now wielding not merely just the clubs which they used to subdue unruly prisoners, but axes and swords designed for the purpose of ending life. They descended upon the rabid wolf, whom until now had made short work of any approaching foe. Shyrrik watched in horror from within the clutches of his guard escort as the troops began wailing blows upon his wolven friend. A first impact caught the flat side of a sword against the wolf’s back right leg, snapping the bone in two, and eliciting a painful yelp from the creature’s maw. Unfazed, however, the wolf continued to battle back against his opponents, suffering scrape and slash from the bladed weapons without so much as a recoil. It was not until a particularly strong-looking guard, wielding a war hammer, brought his weapon down upon the wolf’s back with all the force in his arms, crushing downward against the animal’s spine and incapacitating him. The wolf faltered, whined, and collapsed onto the ground beneath a surging flood of angry men that took their vengeance upon the creature’s body as they pleased.
“No!” Shyrrik yelled and, drawing from some unknown reservoir of power, shrugged himself free of his captors’ hands. He immediately charged forward with a furious yell, launching himself at the first assailant he could lay his hands on, striking his victim square in the face with a fist propelled by a force generated from many, many weeks of intensive labor, fit to knock him from consciousness in an instant. But the half-elf would have no time to seek a new target, for he was quickly seized by many pairs of arms that pulled him away from his struggling companion despite fighting with every ounce of strength that remained within him. He was struck in the back of his head with something metal, and cried out sharply in pain, while the back of his legs were kicked inward to force him down onto his knees where he was held. He recognized a captain of the guard shouting fierce orders to the waves of men raining blows down upon his wolven friend, and with very lax pacing did they eventually lift themselves free from the animal’s body, which was revealed to be covered in blood and lacerations. As order was restored among the ranks, and the air about the crowd of people quieted, the captain slowly approached the felled wolf, who whined pathetically in pain yet remained conscious. The officer seized the hammer used to bring the wolf under their mercy from another guard, and stood over the lupine creature’s broken body. The animal drew back its lips and hissed a growl out that could have rattled a man even still, but the captain only snorted out, and raised his hammer high.
The blood sprayed far enough to spatter Shyrrik across his face. His gasps came in stutters, his lungs frozen, every conscious vital process in his body suspended for that moment of untold bewildered grief. His eyes, wide now in a stupor with pupils pointed, could not be brought to focus, and blurred further under the presence of welling tears. The guard captain huffed and dropped his hammer into the soil, staring at the wolf’s body as if in bored contemplation, while the broken lupine creature twitched and convulsed in its throes of death. He then glanced over to a short cliff, over which pulsed a strong orange glow, and nodded to his subjects.
Shyrrik’s struggles began anew, desperate in his incomprehensible vocalizations to keep them from what he knew they would do. A dozen or so guards brought the wolf’s body up onto their shoulders, and began carrying its massive frame with some amount of difficulty towards the edge of the noted plateau, over which laid a steep drop into the volcano’s fiery recesses. The wolf bled freely through his nose and mouth as he was shuttled to the cliff’s edge, no sign of life left in him. By some gracious miracle, Shyrrik’s panicked twisting once again freed him from the guards’ grasp, and he took full flight out towards the group. He was much faster than any of the guards on open ground, and none left behind could hope to catch up to him, but he arrived a moment too late.
With a great heave, the guards reared back and rudely shoveled the wolf’s body over top of the ledge. It impacted on the slanted cliff, and began to tumble, striking sickeningly against jagged formations on the way down before bouncing violently off a boulder situated at the base of the pit. It then careened and struck the surface of the lava with a viscous splash, beginning to sink moments later. As Shyrrik arrived at the ledge, he slid upon his knees as if to dive down to rescue his wolven friend from his fate, but the guards who had carried the wolf quickly intercepted and pulled him back from what would have been his own oblivion – not for sake of saving his life, but as a matter of retaining a valued slave. As the wolf’s burning body disappeared from view into the lake of fire, the guard captain stood behind in admiration of a job well done in his stifling of the rebellion, remarking with a casualness most sinister.
“Take him to his cell. He’ll pay for it later.”
Shyrrik fought all the way to his cell. He wrenched himself in his captors’ arms, stretching himself in ways that undoubtedly pulled muscles and ligaments to their end means. He scratched and bit at the skin of the guards, growling like an animal possessed, not unlike that of his wolf just prior to death. He clawed at the walls and at the dirt, ripping his fingernails to raw and bloody stubs. He managed a punch here, a kick there, but any free limb was quickly captured once more. He swore unintelligibly for the entirety of the way, causing such a ruckus that any guardsmen who many not have witnessed the battle in the pit would certainly find themselves entertained at least by his antics. Returning to his cell, the door was swung open and the half-elf deposited roughly inside, behind which he was quickly sealed again with, by the sound of it, more than one locking mechanism. A furious Shyrrik regained his footing and turned to launch himself at the door, which seemingly was only fastened just in time to prevent his bursting through it as his body impacted with a power that startled the soldiers outside. From within the small barred in-look, they could see the enraged face of the archer as he grabbed hold of a bar in each hand, shaking the door with enough power as to be rather frightening, causing the rusted hinges to groan and the locking chains to rattle loudly. The ranger battered the door with his fists, screaming his venomous anger in a furied agony that reverberated through every cell block in the entire substructure of the volcano. He beat upon the metal until his knuckles swelled and bled profusely, and then only switched to strikes with his forearms.
And when the woodsman could muster no more strength to lay blows upon the door, he collapsed backwards and fell onto his side, supported by an arm and a knee. And as his hyperventilated breaths that seethed out bellowed growls slowly gave way to sobs that wracked his shoulders, Shyrrik buried his head in his hands and let sound a long and pitiful wail. Then, he wept. Having no energy to draw upon with which he might gather himself, he wept like he had never wept in his life, for the sake of anyone or anything. It was a child’s weep, that spoke of an inability to understand the suffering that was being inflicted onto itself, a cry that begged for mercy from anyone that might spare a pittance’s worth of sympathy for his torture. The ranger grieved now not only for the death of his companion, but for the lost years of his life trudging without direction through a barren grayness, where man knows no joy and feels the warmth of no love. His spirit beaten, the loneliness that had vexed him for his greater existence now gnashed in opportunity on his open heart. Shyrrik cried, and cried, until he found no strength to do even this. Then, he fell prone, and was enveloped in darkness.
Two weeks had passed.
Shyrrik had become catatonic. He could not manage the simplest work tasks, and merely laid slack against his cell wall whenever idle, silent except for the occasional undecipherable murmuring. The guards had given up attempting to put him to use, and instead allowed him to brood in his cell undisturbed. They did, of course, ration his food even further to sustain him merely to the necessity of survival, and made sure to spread rumors among the other prisoners of the extreme punishments he would routinely suffer for his disobedience, so as to ensure that none of the other slaves would be so bold as to refuse work. Yablo, for the duration of this period, was unable to intelligibly converse with the ranger, barely prying from him a few acknowledging words before the half-elf would mute himself once again. Shyrrik saw nothing of his other friends, could not even think of them; in all truth, he could think of nothing. The ranger had escaped thought altogether, shedding his greater faculties for whatever twisted form of peace was able to be scrounged from this brimstone hell.
The past few days had stricken the bowman with an acute sickness, the severity of which necessitated the temporary vacation of his comrade from the cell and into another location. Naturally, the guards spared no assistance for the half-elf, and he was left with nothing but a shoddy thatched blanket and an extra skin of water for his trouble. Shyrrik’s fever had begun to run dangerously high and, coupled with his malnutrition, rendered him delirious and unresponsive. He laid flat on the cold stone floor, drenched in sweat and animated by chills that shuddered through him, his muscles involuntarily gripping to the extent of pain around his spine. His body held rigid against the ground, locked in an outstretched position from which he could barely deviate from. Every bloody cough sent an agonizing jolt through his chest, and further displaced his stomach, which had expelled its contents twice this day already, leaving nothing but for him to wretch dryly in misery. He found little rest; the greater portions of the day were spent this way, enduring through hour upon hour of burning, freezing torture, sapping from him his very force of life. It would not be very long before he succumbed.
Some time into the fourth day, Shyrrik lay pale-faced and still, slitted eyes staring deadly at the ceiling. He struggled to breathe, and his limbs were numb so as to render them useless. Somewhere in the unafflicted portion of his mind, he was aware of his fate. Neither accepting nor denying of it was he, rather he simply observed the deterioration of his body from some detached point of reference within himself. As he pondered his own pathetic squalor, his eyes were suddenly touched by a dim light. He could not turn to meet it, and wondered what its source could have been. Had someone entered into his cell? No, that was not it. The light from the magma was a dark and deep orange hue, but this was as white as sunlight. As it began to grow in intensity, he began to squint further to shut it out, wishing meekly for such an insulting annoyance to be spared from him in his ending hours. But he found that no matter how tightly he shut his eyes out, the light continued to grow before him, clouding out any vision he had of the cell he laid in, and finally overtaking his entire field of view in a wispy, smoke-like haze. He smiled to himself in self-pity, for surely this must’ve been the end of him. I die as I live, trapped in my own head, he thought bitterly.
But as the minutes wore on, Shyrrik the half-elf did not perish – or at least, not that he could discern. Though he still trembled painfully, something settled over him in such a way not as to alleviate his anguish, but perhaps more so to simply render it irrelevant. How this was so, the ranger could not seem to grasp. The mist before his eyes was featureless, and within it he saw nothing. After a few moments, however, the ranger would instead find his ears touched by the soft, bouncing voice of something otherworldly, echoing in ethereal fashion.
He creased his brow. What could this be? The voice continued.
Child of the forest, my dear Shyrrik…you mustn’t lose hope…
Gods above, it was the language of the elves that was spoken now to him. Reflexively, the ranger moved to vocalize a response, and curiously, he found that his lips could form words as they saw fit and his vocal chords were cured of the ravages of the disease.
“What…mockery is this.” He began, and then managed a weak and pessimistic laugh. “I see, that must be it. Instead of robbing me of my life, the fates have it proper to rob me of what little sanity I have left. So be it, then. I only hope I do not make such a fool out of myself before I die.”
Shyrrik, the half-elf, eternal wanderer of the twilight skies…he who sees all, and feels nothing…your time has not come…
The archer now suddenly found himself very disturbed, for this was clearer to him than any hallucination ought to be. The voice that addressed him now was as soothing as the warm rains of a Frichosian spring. It seemed not to originate from any part of space around him, yet it was not a voice spoken from within his own mind. His eyes shot open, and desperately did he search for the owner of this disembodied voice that presumed to know of him.
“Who…who are you?” He asked, tentative.
I am…Ehlonna…goddess of the hunt, and of the wood…
A gasp was forced from the tightly clinching throat of the half-elf. This could not possibly be real. It was sometimes typical of the ranger to doubt the existence of the gods altogether, or at least be particularly suspect of their involvement with mortal affairs. And to further the absurdity of it, that a goddess herself might grant him audience? Yet as the voice murmured gently to him, he found himself irrationally accepting of its validity, as if the certainty of this knowledge came to him just as the very idea itself. As Shyrrik troubled to make sense of this, he inquired further.
“This…cannot be. I am a lowly woodsman, who has neglected to worship. Why should the goddess of the trees come to me?”
The gods have taken interest in these dealings…You are more than a pawn, Shyrrik…I have watched over you for a long time…Your spirit is as pure as Sehanine’s moonlight…You dwell now in the dark, dreading the light, just as you have in life…I have opened your heart to life’s greatest joys and deepest pains, so that you might know what it is you journey for…You are not alone…For I will be with you, as will your friends…
As the half-elf was want for a suitable response for his divine visitor, a form appeared from within the clouded light. Next to where he lay, there did materialize into existence in a vaporous shimmer the image of a fair and beautiful elven maiden. Flawless of feature, dressed in celestial garb not of this world, and with hair flowing in endless ribbons around and about the both of them, she radiated a warmth and benevolence far beyond even the ranger’s wildest expectations of the woodland goddess herself. The heavenly deity cradled his head into her lap, and touched softly to his brow, which felt not of a woman’s hand, but of the light of the sun, which when felt by the archer quickly seemed to draw out whatever malevolent umbra hung around his head, pacifying the great pains therein and restoring a healthy color to the half-elf’s face. She then sought out with this same hand, reaching out over his chest, and from there he could see a swirling vortex of darkness well up from within his body, a grim and frostbitten malady that he felt pulled from the tips of his fingers and toes to leave him and enter into the Lady Ehlonna’s body to be purified. As the last bit of negative energy was plucked from him, he felt a sharp twinge in his torso, a knife-like sensation that caused him a moment of discomfort. Yet he knew immediately its cause, for the half-elf now felt the heart within his chest beat with a renewed vitality, and his lungs drink deeply of the air as they had not for weeks. Again, the goddess spoke with him.
My sympathies and my blessings are with you, Shyrrik…I will you not to fight in my name, but in the name of all that you know to be good and pure in this world…
With his renewed clarity, the ranger’s eyes saw the doting smile of the sublime goddess above him, and then focused upon a new form which had come into being beside her. Sitting patiently aside, in its massive, regal majesty, was a wolf; his wolf, his dearest friend that had been slain before eyes. Yet he was different, not just an empyrean vision of himself. His fur was frosted with golden color that shone gloriously in the light, and similarly were his eyes, now of the same sparkling hue. Shyrrik did not know what to make of this sight, and looked to the goddess once more for understanding.
So have I taken the life of your wolf to reside with me in the floating isles, now shall I return him to you…Call upon him whenever you wish, and he will serve you not as my conduit, but as a reminder to you…And that should you ever doubt your purpose on this journey, you may see within his eyes the love that he has for you, and as I do for you…Be reborn, as one that the heart guides…
As these last words left her, the goddess came down upon him and kissed his lips with her own.
In that instant, the half-elf’s dreamscape was rudely disrupted by a sudden harsh rapping of metal upon metal. He was back in his cell, cloaked in darkness, stretched out in the same position he’d left this world in. His eyes darted around frantically, having been bewildered by the sudden shift in dimension, and for a time he did not dare move, suddenly untrusting of the validity of his own being. He was called out to from outside his cell door, which after a moment of silence was heard to be unlatched and swung open with a creaking groan. Two guardsmen entered in and knelt beside the ranger’s body. One held a lantern, which he held up to the archer’s face, showcasing a nervous and fidgeting creature in he whom they had come to inspect. The same guard with the lantern turned to address an unseen accomplice near the cell door.
“He’s still alive, just leave him.”
With that, the two readied to leave. But they had only just reached the door when a low, lightly accented voice called out from behind them, prompting them to turn and observe a fully upright ranger, standing comfortably of his own strength, no longer wracked with shivers and drenched in sweat, but staring under his brow with a healthy complexion and a new found air of resolve.
“Put me to work.”