Blood and death had always been but part of life. Having hunted since she was strong enough to hold a bow, she was a stranger to neither. Nor had it ever bothered her, beyond minor annoyance… not until blood and death touched and claimed the life of the person who had single-handedly shaped her, trained her, made her what she was. Suddenly, then, blood was gut-wrenching, and death, insurmountable. The day she found her mentor and friend dead in the forest bordering her lowland village was the day the world, and everything she thought she knew about it, changed for Sigrid Sørenson. She hadn’t seen what had killed him, and that was perhaps what bothered her the most. Without knowing what beast had taken down a Rune Warrior the calibre of which Gunnar Sørenson had reached, she was at a loss to hunt it down and take its life in turn. It was only for his failing to return from a hunting escapade one evening that she’d detected something might be amiss. Gunnar was always timely, unless a crisis had occurred. Not long after the village had gone quietly to sleep that night, autumn’s chill having descended full force in preparation for winter, she’d taken a lantern and left for the woods, snow-fox shawl draped over her shoulders to maintain warmth. Even with the little light a candle encased in foggy glass could provide, she knew the parts of the forest that her mentor frequented. They were the same parts where he had taught and trained her for almost twenty years, and she’d have been able to find them blindfolded. Sure enough, Gunnar kept true to his paths, but Sigrid was at least a mile deep into the woods before she found him. So much blood, that the sources from which it leaked were hardly visible, but there was no guessing that it was her mentor’s life essence that stained the earth burgundy, that stained his clothes, and that condemned what was left of his life. The young Rune Warrior, lantern discarded, had never run so fast in her life to the man to whom she owed everything. “Lie still,” she advised, in an ill attempt to filter anxiety from her voice. “Don’t move, I can return with a healer. Whatever beast did this to you… I will find it. I’ll—” “Don’t be…naïve.” Gunnar choked the words, blood glistening on his lips. “I am done, Sigrid. You must… the city. It is… imperative…” Loathe though she was to believe it, he spoke the truth. She would make it no further than the village, let alone a return trip, before her mentor left this world for that of the spirits. It was a moment for which she was wholly unprepared, and yet the moment lent no room for grief. “What about the city? Gunnar, what happened?” “Beasts… they’re not…natural. Sigrid…” With what little strength the veteran Rune Warrior had left, he reached to grasp her arm. “The city… tell the village… leave, take to… Garenvale. Before the beasts… before it all spreads.” “Before what spreads? Please…” Tears unbidden gathered in her eyes, blurred her vision, but she blinked them away. It was not the way she wanted her mentor to see her for the last time. “I’m trying to understand… what is spreading?” “Death... and… if they are not stopped… reckoning.” They were her mentor and friend’s last living words, and she hardly understood them. All she could fathom was that, with the last task he would ever give her, she needed to deliver the clippings of his vague warning to her village. Even in the throes of death, Gunnar was a man who kept his wits about him, and did not bestow warnings lightly, if there was but a shadow of doubt. Mercifully releasing his feeble grip on life soon after uttering his last words, the old Rune Warrior did not burden his disciple with witnessing any lengthy moments of agony. And Sigrid knew better than to linger, particularly when the beast who had felled Gunnar could still be nearby. Scarcely remembering to grab the lantern, she all but flew on her feet through the trees of the thick wood, all the way back to their village to deliver the news of her mentor’s death, as well as his vague warning. Her reception, and the village’s response within the next few days, however, was not what she would have ever expected. “Why are you so quick to disregard?” Sigrid stood before her village elders for the third day in a row, in hopes to drive home the words which—for the third day in a row—seemed to continue to fall upon deaf ears. “You all knew Gunnar as well as I, if not better. He never spoke in vain… If he declares such urgency to head for Garenvale, there must be a reason.” But like yesterday, and the day before, her plea was met only with the blank stares of three older men, and one younger—far too young to be an elder, but for sons of elders, it was apparently a birthright—, all of whom looked upon her like she was a raving lunatic. From the three old men, it hardly came as a surprise, but Sigrid’s core was nicked with wounds at the young man’s doubt. Gvynthur, the elder’s son, and only granted privilege of an elder himself when he came into manhood a handful of years ago, had been one of the few within the village with whom she had a positive rapport. He’d always been a brother to her, up until their dynamic changed little over a year ago, when he’d expressed he cared for her in a way which she could not reciprocate. While he’d claimed to understand, and assured her nothing between them would change, his smile had become more indifferent, and their conversations less substantial, ever since. “Sigrid. The throes of death can make a man believe astounding and wild concepts,” one of the older men declared. “We have already discussed this at length. Gunnar was praiseworthy among the Rune Warriors, but he had no proof for his claims. And neither do you.” “We retrieved Gunnar’s body two days ago. You saw the state it was in. What exactly do you think felled him that would leave the body in such a condition?” Sigrid challenged. “No animal known to this village kills in such a fashion—what if whatever killed him was what he meant to warn us about?” “And you, in your youth, can claim to know every detail about the way in which every beast known to the village kills?” Another of the elders shook his head. “Winter nears, Sigrid. We cannot afford to waste time and resources on farfetched and unfounded suspicions.” Sigrid was no master of keeping her temper in check, and as the moments passed, she was feeling less inclined to put forth the effort? “Farfetched and unfounded?” The young woman all but hissed. “Were it anyone else—were I anyone else, in bringing you this news, you would act on it. I dare you to deny it.” “I think this conversation has gone on for long enough.” The third and final elder—Gvynthur’s father—raised his hand. “You dishonour Gunnar’s memory with your petulant insistence, Sigrid. Leave this issue and his spirit to rest.” “No… No, I am honouring his final request. If anyone here is failing him, and his memory, then it is all of you.” For the third and final time, Sigrid turned her back and left the conference quarters and the building without throwing a glance over her shoulder. The lowland village and its clan of warriors had never considered her one of their own; for that, she had been subject to discrimination, but only ever to her own detriment. Never to Gunnar’s, who had, against the will and advice of his people and colleagues, taken her in so young. Seen in her the potential to be one of the Rune Warriors, and had thusly trained her as one. And while he had been alone what he invested in her, she’d never have suspected her mere presence would mar the grace of his passing. Perhaps she’d been foolish to ever uphold so much faith in her village. “Sigrid!” The young warrior was only yards away when a voice came calling after her. “I don’t believe your claims to be farfetched. I want to know what it was that spurred Gunnar’s warning… I want to help.” He believed her? He wanted to know? He wanted to help? The nerve! That he would claim to stand with her now, and yet not so much as speak up while she humiliated herself thrice in front of the elders. The more she learned about the way in which Gvynthur Skaal reacted to not getting what he wanted, the more with a broken heart she realized he was not the friend she’d though him to be, let alone the brother. “If you want to help, Gvynthur,” she called, sparing him but a single glance without pausing in step, “then convince your father and the other two fat-heads in the conference room to spare the time and resources and at least investigate Gunnar’s warning.” However unintended, Gvynthur only continued to further rub salt into the wound. “Could you not do so yourself? Investigate, I mean. You’re beyond capable, prove to the elders—” “I am through trying to prove anything to the elders. And I certainly plan to investigate, but it will be of no consequence to any of you,” she replied. “What do you mean?” “I mean, I am leaving for the city. And I won’t be returning… Goodbye, Gvynthur. I hope you can make your father and the elders see the reason that I could not.” She would not miss the village, or its people, or its memory. But she would miss—and already did—the presence of her mentor, and through her pride, hoped that his spirit. Wherever it roamed, realized that if she didn’t walk away from the lowlands, then she was liable to go down with the village, should this reckoning actually come to pass. Had she known then the nature of what had killed Gunnar, and what it meant for the village, let alone the rest of the kingdom of Kalleih, she might not have been so quick to leave the lowlands behind to witness the danger in their own good time. Travel to the city was a little less than a day and a half by horse, but no less than two days by foot, if you stopped to rest through the night. Food was not an issue, as Sigrid had packed enough dried meat and nuts to last for the trek, but rest was inevitable. And she was already a day and a night into her venture towards Kalleih’s capitol, Garenvale, before she came into the answers she sought. Taking to the woods, as opposed to the trodden paths to avoid bandits, it was early into the morning on the second day that she encountered a type of skirmish that she’d never have thought she’d witness. No, skirmish wasn’t quite the word; fight might have been more suitable, except that one party appeared to simply be fending off his enemy to mitigate damage, unable to inflict it. There was no name—not of which Sigrid was aware—for the assailant. It did not appear to be a he, or a she, but rather, an it, some manlike beast with skin the colour of ash, claws where fingers should be, and incisors that jutted from both its upper and lower jaw. Muscles bulged beneath its sandpaper-like skin, taut and strong; the old man beneath it, fallen yet fending off its teeth and claws with only a wooden staff, was no match. Without help, he would be as good as dead. The young Rune Warrior couldn’t in good conscience stand and witness such a scene without intervening. Drawing her shortsword from its sheath at her back was so second nature that it was practically a reflex, as was the way she lunged for the beast, catching it in the spine directly at the base of its neck. She was fortunate only in that the creature hadn’t seen or her heard, hadn’t expected her, and thus hadn’t had time to react. And any less of a blow likely wouldn’t have felled it; its tough skin would have resisted a slightly duller blade. Whatever it was, it was equipped to damage, and to tolerate damage. It was nothing less of a monster… And no beast was ever solitary in nature. Where there was one, more surely existed… How many, and from where they came, however, was completely lost on Sigrid. The old man gasped in relief as the monster fell away from him, scrambling out of the way before the lifeless form could crush him with its weight. It was only then that Sigrid caught a glimpse of his robes, the symbols stitched around the collar, and the pendant he wore: this was no ordinary traveler, but a holy man, bearing no weapons but the wooden staff in his clutches. Were it not for his divine disposition, she’d have been apt to call him a fool for traveling the woods alone. But even the rough and tumble people of the lowland villages knew better than to insult a holy man, and frankly, she had more of a mind to ask questions than to point fingers. “Are you all right?” Returning her sword to its sheath, after wiping the creature’s dark blood from its blade on a bed of moss, Sigrid offered the old man a hand. “And might I ask why you dared venture the woods alone? They crawl with beasts… Some more dangerous than others, it would seem.” “Bless you, young woman. Bless you.” The holy man gratefully took her hand and pulled himself to his feet, grasping her fingers with gratitude. “You must think me an old fool, but at risk of my life, I feel obligated to travel Kalleih to spread warning of the darkness upon us… you just witnessed it yourself. My brethren have split the task among us: I’ve traversed the lowland villages for the past four days…” Anything the man said beyond lowland villages was suddenly lost on Sigrid’s ears, and she interrupted his explanation to pose a dire question: “Holy one… if you have been frequenting the lowlands, did you happen to encounter a Rune Warrior, not far from Vyrnne? In the woods, at that?” “I… indeed I did.” The holy stranger nodded and rubbed his bald head. “I did encounter a Rune Warrior, just days ago, an hour from Vyrnne. He agreed to carry the warning to his village, to urge them to travel northward, where the evil has yet to fester.” “Vyrnne is my village.” Sigrid swallowed he lump rising in her throat and pressed her lips into a thin line. “And that man was my mentor. He did not survive to return to the village, but the warning was not lost on me… It was in his dying breath, mind you. I didn’t have the details, and I fear my village did not take me seriously.” “Then they could well be doomed,” came the man’s dismal reply. “What you just saw… the thing from which you just saved my life, there are more. And there will continue to be more, until the rift between their world and ours is mended. I mourn your loss and will pray for your mentor’s soul.” Doomed? For the first time since leaving her lowland village, Sigrid began to suffer pangs of remorse. “I should not have left them,” she muttered. While there was nothing left for her in Vyrnne, she wished a death such as what had befallen Gunnar on no one. “Is it too late? I was headed for Garenvale, on my mentor’s advice… I should return with this beast’s head. They will then have no reason not to take me seriously.” “If you return now, good woman, you will surely die.” The holy man shook his head. “You have done what you could, and I declare you free of blame. Continue onward to Garenvale, and warn all whom you might encounter.” “But what about you? Come to Garenvale with me; I could not in good conscience have you wander without protection.” “Did you not hear me absolve you of blame?” A hint of a smile touched the old man’s lips. “I must continue with my task—as must you. But take this as my parting gratitude.” Bowing his head, the holy man took the pendant from around his neck and held it out to Sigrid. “Present this, and any sanctum in Kalleih will welcome you without question, and grant you sanctuary.” Colour and heat rose to Sigrid’s cheeks. Her reply was hesitant, and not without shame. “I do not pray to any god,” she confessed. “It is not part of a Rune Warrior’s tradition.” “That does not stop others for praying for you,” the holy man argued, and placed the pendant around Sigrid’s neck before she could further protest. “Tell me your name.” “Sigrid Sørenson,” she replied. “Of the Rune Warriors of Vyrnne.” “I thank you and will pray for you, Sigrid Sørenson,” the kind stranger assured her. “Regardless of what god to whom you do or do not kneel. Kalleih’s sanctums will welcome and protect you, if divine powers do not.” Against her better judgement, Sigrid and the holy man parted ways. While she was not one to shirk a gift such as what he had bestowed, the pendant felt heavy with guilt around her neck, thinking about the village and the people she had forsaken. Despite being presented with divine forgiveness, she couldn’t help but continue to feel unworthy, and tucked it away in the deerskin pouch at her side for safe keeping. It was yet another day before she reached Garenvale, allowing her mind to turn over the recent turn of events and everything she’d learned. The reckoning, the beasts, a rift between worlds… None of it made sense, but of one thing she’d become certain: the very beast that had attacked the holy man was the same that had killed Gunnar. It had to have been, or else his final plea would not have held such conviction. Something was happening, and if the rest of Vyrnne chose to shirk her mentor’s final warning, articulated on her lips, then she would quietly mourn their loss, but could do nothing to buffer their fall into a final, mass grave. If the city held any promise whatsoever, then it was enough to cling to the threads of hope. A day later, as the sun began to sink on the horizon, that hope was shaken by her reception at the city of Garenvale, the eye and center of Kalleih. Now she understood why Gunnar had spoken so ill of the city folk, and why lowland villagers seldom traveled this way. “You are required to surrender your weapons before we will permit you entry into Garenvale.” Had she expected that she must walk an unknown city with unfamiliar people, completely unarmed, the young Rune Warrior might have reconsidered Garenvale as a primary destination; or, at least, prepared for a different approach. As it stood, she was two days’ worth weary of travel, with little sleep to be had, and her patience was too frayed to tolerate the patronizing stares of the two city men. “Were it not for my weapons, I would not be standing here,” came her flat reply. She made no move to relinquish her shortsword, nor the dagger strapped to her thigh. “Have you any idea what's crawling Kalleih right now? I’ve traveled two days, on edge. My sword stays with me.” The guardsmen exchanged a curious glance, either at the newcomer’s audacious refusal to yield to their regulations, or that they must have thought her a simpleton to have not anticipated their request. Either way, it did nothing to convince her to comply. “We’re well aware of Kallein’s conditions, young lady. It is because of these dangers that the Exalt has declared a state of emergency, and all who seek sanctuary in Garenvale specifically are required to disarm themselves in the name of peace.” “I did not travel two days from the lowlands with little sleep solely to threaten the Exalt.” Sigrid snapped, a nerve in her jaw twitching. “I merely wish to walk with the reassurance that I may defend myself, should the need arise.” The older of the two guardsmen, a man with stark grey hair, rolled his eyes. “We can assure your safety, here. But we cannot let you pass unless you yield to law.” Past them, Sigrid glimpsed silver and steel on the hips and across the backs of gaily clad men; nobility or city folk, she could not be certain. But she refused to walk, unarmed, amid strangers who were apparently exempt of this rule with which she was expected to comply; that said, she also was loathe to find another city, after the two day trek from Vyrnne. Wordlessly, the Rune Warrior reached into the pouch at her hip, instantly putting the guardsmen on edge. Spears were pointed in her direction before she could look up. “Pray you, keep your hands free and visible, or you can forget about finding sanctuary in Garenvale!” “I don’t pray.” Sigrid snorted. “But that mattered not to the holy man who gave me this.” Gripping the cord in her fist, she dangled the holy pendant for the guardsmen to see. “With my weapons, I saved the life of a man of prayer, just yesterday. He gave me this in gratitude, with the promise that I might find sanctuary in any sanctum found in Kalleih. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do believe one such sanctum can be found here in Garenvale. Now, will you reconsider, or should I take this issue to the Exalt, myself?” Holy trinkets held little to no weight in lowland villages, such as Vyrnne, but Sigrid knew enough about the cities that the citizens held themselves in higher status for their devotion to gods and to prayers. And while she had no idea as to the identity of Kalleih’s Exalt, whether they were a man or a woman, child or adult, or even fair or self-serving, she was willing to bet it was expected of them to swear an oath to their gods for the status they held; and, likewise, that those who served them directly would be held to similar expectations. Given the sour looks on the guardsmen’s faces, she wasn’t wrong, yet they continued not to budge. “Are you not required to take me straight to the Exalt, should I request it?” A Kalleihan law of which she was certain. “I could relinquish my weapons, show this pendant, and declare you refused me sanctuary on prejudice towards lowland citizens. Or, alternately, you can let me enter in peace, and I will forget this conversation ever took place.” She had them. The younger of the two guardsmen—who had likely only recently been promoted to his position, given that he didn’t look much older than her, and was loathe to lose his stature to a lie—finally lowered his spear. “May you enter, then, in peace, and keep your weapons visible,” he grumbled. “But if you think to cause trouble, know that we will be keeping an eye on you, and will be the first to throw you back out of these gates, and never open them to you again.” “Praise for your cooperation.” Flashing the two men a sly smile over her shoulder, Sigrid turned her back to the argument that ensued between them and made her way into the depths of Garenvale’s heart. As to what she was to find here, aside from sanctuary, she did not know. But whatever was arising in Kalleih, the people here clearly had more information, and were more prepared for it than her fellow lowland dwellers. The challenge would be finding the right person with the right information; after all, in events such as this, there was no shortage or rumours and lies, and she was too unfamiliar with the cityfolk to know who to trust. The obvious idea came to her as she held the pendant in her palm: of course! The men of prayer, the ones spreading warning, must know the details behind this kingdom-wide emergency. And when she presented the pendant and explained how it came into her possession, surely they’d see fit to fill in all of the blanks left from Gunnar’s story, as well as that of the man she’d saved. Replacing the pendant in her pouch, Sigrid drew a steadying breath as she made her way into the dense slew of people, city dwellers and travelers alike, in search of the one place where she might find some answers.