Salvation

The five men stood around the grand oak tree, staring wondrously into the abysmal cave before them. Exiled from their camp, they sought shelter from the harsh elements of nature; the Green Mother could be quite unforgiving to the unwary. The leader of the group, Bretzt, stood coolly, the closest to the cave. On the outside he seemed calm, cool, and collected, being in full control of himself, but like the others, inside he dreaded entering the dark unknown ahead. He let one hand rest on the hilt of his black crystal knife, the other tapping idly on a large root from the oak tree behind him. A stream poured out of the cave along its left wall. It rolled gently along, emptying into the large river a short distance behind them, its low roar audible above the call of the birds and the whisper of the light, spring wind.

"Do you suppose there's a monster waiting for us in there?" Eciil, the groups most experienced sage asked. It was out of his character to be worrying about monsters as he was usually the one asserting that all beings have a place and an explanation and a reason for being. His excitement was felt by the others, however. This was an unknown land to them, this cave dark and mysterious. No one really knew what could be waiting inside. Bretzt believed that nothing more harmful than a bear would inhabit such a cave, but even a bear was not a pleasant creature to meet up with in the dark.

"We need fire," Bretzt announced to the group arrayed behind him. Relieved to have something to occupy them, they all set out gathering adequately sized branches from the oak tree and wrapped the tops in fibered bark and grass. Crosdam, the other sage of the group, began mixing a small concoction of highly flammable ooze called tar. The ends of the torches were covered in the black ooze and held by Joraal and Admaas, former wealth holders of their tribe. They were not without their merits, however. Joraal was a large, burly fellow who could wield large hammers and cudgels with great effect. Admaas, on the other hand, was hardly a fighter, but he was intelligent, especially in the arcane arts of the Ancradids. They both stood together and grumbled about ox work.

"Monsters, they aren't put off by mere torches," Eciil insisted. "Perhaps we should arm ourselves, with more than just weapons, I mean." Bretzt agreed with Eciil, although what protection could be provided by armor of any quality that they could make? All the recourses available couldn't provide the adequate protection Eciil sought, but Bretzt knew that something was better than nothing.

"Alright then, we can make some armor from the bark of this tree, it's ancient and thick, and should provide us some protection." Bretzt followed his own advice and drew his dagger to begin digging into the bark. The others did the same. They all cut large patches of bark to hang over their chests and back and to cover their waists and legs, tying it all together with fibered bark. "If everyone is happy, we can proceed into the cave, no?" All nodded their consent and Bretzt moved forward, gripping his knife in his right hand and a bark shield in the left. Joraal followed behind Bretzt, who was followed by Crosdam, who preceded Eciil. Finally came Admaas. The light of the torches cast a faint, flickering orange tint on the damp walls of the cave. The dripping of water from the deep stream could be heard echoing through the deep, black caverns. Bretzt moved forward cautiously. He was careful to be conscious of where every step fell, watching for pit falls and cracks.

Deeper into the cave they went. In many places the cave split into side caverns and before long the group wasn't sure where exactly they were. "We need to head back," Crosdam insisted. Bretzt agreed. They were lost, and would never find their way out if they went any deeper in. They made their way back out, moving up what they suspected was the way they came in. They were all proven wrong, however, when they came upon a large, open space in the cave where the stream originated from a large stone outcropping. The room was littered in the bones of animals and in the torchlight they could make out blood and flesh as well. Near the stream's edge was a large stone slab covered in furs and straw, a bed was the group's conclusion.

"What do you suppose lives here?" Admaas inquired as he held the torch higher in an attempt to cast more light around. The light revealed only more bones and a small, dead, fire pit.

"A monster, that's what lives here," Eciil said with a crack of his voice. The others in the group inched away from the stone bed slowly.

"Wait," Bretzt ordered. "If we go back, we'll get lost again." The group stopped, but did not begin moving any farther into the cavern.

"If we stay here we'll all die," Eciil insisted. The others whispered amongst themselves in hushed and worried tones, spreading their fear like an infectious disease.

"The stream," Joraal said. "The stream leads out, right? Why don't we follow it to get out, we can't get lost if we follow its edge." The group became calmer with this advice and expressed their wishes to be off at once, but Bretzt didn't like the idea. Whatever lived in this cave most likely followed the stream in and out as well, and the odds of meeting up with what ever it was were good, but what other way was there? With great reluctance Bretzt consented and the group was once again off, relieved to be leaving the dark place behind. For several hours they walk along the stream's edge. Their moods became sour and spirits fell. Eciil complained about sore feet, as did the rest, but also whined about being eaten by unknown monsters. Bretzt wanted to knock all of them upside the head. Their whining and complaining did not help the situation at all. Not too long later, however, Bretzt spotted a light ahead and informed the group. They did not cheer and whoop, they only sighed relief and moved with doubled speed towards the entrance.

The group emerged from the cave with great joy and looked upon the setting sun sinking slowly into the Westworld. As they enjoyed themselves and drank merrily from the stream and ate of the juicy berries growing along its banks, a loud, bone chilling cry crashed through the still evening forest. All five men stopped and stared in shocked horror at the sight that lay before them.

A large, greenish-gray beast swung down from the great oak tree and stared at them with three, hungering, black eyes. A Graum. A beast of legend, but here it stood before them, jaw hanging open and saliva dripping from its pale lips. All the men stood still, not knowing what to do, their fear held them in place. Bretzt was the first to act; with his knife still in hand he rushed the foul beast. The Graum tilted its head sideways in curiosity, much like a dog, then jumped on Bretzt, pinning him behind his shield. Thank the Green Mother that his knife hand was still free and with it he lashed at the beast, stabbing it in repeatedly in the side. It jumped away from Bretzt, leaving him breathless and tired. Instead it concentrated on the other group members who had not yet moved. Eciil screamed and jumped into the stream and tried to run away. Joraal hefted a great stone from the stream and hurled it towards the beast. It struck the thing on the head and sent it sprawling back with a sickening crack. Bretzt stood and with the rest of the group, minus Eciil who was hiding behind a rock, approached the dead beast.

It lay sprawled out on the ground beneath the great oak tree, its three black eyes glazed over with death. So, a Graum was a creature like any bear; it was not supernatural or powerful, but he could still see why it was a good idea to avoid the things. With the threat of the cave killed, the men decided it was a good idea to spend the night in the cave. They cleared the Graum's chamber of bones and lit a fire in the pit. On the stone slab the placed the dead Graum and gave thanks to the Green Mother for protecting them from it. Then Bretzt cleaned the beast, peeling away all of its hide and stretching it over a board made from the oak tree outside the cave. The rest of the carcass was cast into the stream and was aloud to float away, eventually dumping into the larger river and being carried to the sea.

That night was a restless night; all of the men remained awake, dreading the possible existence of more beasts. Morning came soon enough and without sleep, the men set out to make their new home safer. They peeled bark and cut branches for the great oak tree to build doors and walls in the cave. Bretzt and Crosdam went out hunting with bows they had made the night before, returning shortly after Highmeen with a deer and two rabbits. The animals were skinned quickly and their meats cooked over the fire in the cave. The men sat around the fire that night and laughed and joked about the past days. They felt very secure now that doors and walls were built in the cave to protect them. They slept soundly that night and in the morning set out to make the cave even more of a home. Now with doors and sleeping furs, they set out to build more. Joraal and Admaas began to work at the walls, smoothing them out and shaping them. Bretzt and Crosdam went out and hunted and foraged for more food and Eciil built a standard to mark their newfound territory.

Days passed and then weeks; life was moving along in a very smooth manner and everything seemed to be going their way. They had not seen a single sign of scouts from the Green Mother Village to the north nor had they seen any indication of more creatures like the Graum. Their cave transformed over the long lunar cycles and soon their reclaimed cave had become a home. Admaas blessed the oak tree that had originally provided for them using ancient magick. It truly seemed that they had conquered their new domain.

One evening while out on a stroll, Bretzt noticed something coming up on the horizon. Along that endless blue seam that held the world to the heavens, was a small white speck, slowly growing larger. Soon that speck materialized into an odd floating house with a large white cloth billowing in the wind above it. Bretzt rushed back to his companions and related his story to them. Non believed him so he led them all to the shore north of the mountain. Upon their arrival they found the strange thing on the beach, and scrambling off it were many people in odd outfits. Instead of furs or leather they wore strange and colored robes, much like the druids of old wore.

"Who are they?" Crosdam asked.

"I don't know," Bretzt said. Eciil put forward the possibility that they were mages of great power since they were from over the sea, but they didn't carry themselves like mages should. They scrambled up the beach, one of the tripped over a rock which produced much laughter from the group. Bretzt finally decided that they weren't dangerous and with great confidence and despite the arguments from his fellows he journeyed down to the beach. The man that had tripped earlier spotted him first and drew a long, bright and shiny object from his waste, but put it away when his companion barked at him. Bretzt approached the man that had issued the order since he was most likely the leader.

As Bretzt drew closer, he realized that their leader was not a man, but a woman. This woman was strange, however; she wore clothing like a man's and carried herself like a man would. Bretzt had never met a woman such as this before. Bretzt greeted her as tradition dictated. He bowed formally and waited for the newcomer to introduce herself. The newcomer just stood there, though, as if waiting for something. Her companion glanced back and forth between them. Did she not know what to do? Was she not from a civilized culture as well? Bretzt decided to start then.

"Greetings stranger, I am Bretzt and chieftain of this part of Calcurm island." The woman looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

"Chieftain? How, quaint," she said with a smirk. Bretzt didn't understand what was so funny, but didn't bother to ask. "I am Yumi Emur of Sekkialan and Captain of the Rahgu." Bretzt didn't understand most of what she had said. She said her name, Yumi, an interesting name. The rest was just a jumbled mess to Bretzt, but he didn't care if this woman wanted to make a fool of herself so he went on.

"What is it that you seek here? I would inform you before hand that we have little to nothing to trade, and what we have to take isn't worth anything, so don't bother." Everyone back in Green Mother Village had said he was far too untrusting of strangers, too curious and to paranoid, which is one reason why he and his companions had been exiled, but caution had never hurt anyone.

"I assure you, good sir, we are not here to rob you. We are in search of a dangerous Necromancer named Agrona. Have you heard of her?" Yumi asked. Bretzt spit in the sand. What a vile woman, Agrona was. That was another reason he had been exiled. That woman showed up just a little over a year before now and had come to the village as a starving beggar, from where no one knew, but nobody cared either. There was a starving woman at our doorstep and she had to be cared for. She was a witch, that's what she was. Bretzt didn't know what a necromancer was, but he had a good feeling that it was in some way related to a witch.

"Yes, we've heard of her," Bretzt spat again. "She showed up in Green Mother Village, our former home, just over a year ago. Everyone welcomed her with open arms, except for me and my fellows, of course. She was cared for and given a home, mine to be specific. Soon after that strange things began to happen, my dog died of a mysterious illness was the first, no one believed me when I said as much, though, because it came trotting out of the house when I did!" Bretzt's anger began to build inside of him now. That vile woman had killed his dog and then had spat on nature and resurrected it.

"That sounds like Agrona; is she still in your village?" Yumi asked. Bretzt spat again.

"As far as I know, yes, she is, but you would be advised not to head that way. My dog's death and rebirth wasn't the only strange happening."

"It's not rebirth," Yumi cut into Bretzt's rant. "It's reanimation."

"Whatever it is, it's an abomination!" Bretzt declared. "As I was saying, soon after that children began to disappear. No one knew why, except for me of course. Soon after that she said she had slain a bear and found the skeletons of the young girls in its den. Then, just before we were exiled, she tried to kill me in my sleep! It was to my advantage that I sleep lightly. I tried to fight back, but she the accused me of attempting to murder her! So I was exiled and only my closest friends came with me."

"That's a very sad story," Yumi said with no genuine sympathy. "Would it be possible for you to lead me and my crew to the village? I can promise that we will kill the woman for you." Bretzt's smile held no warmth.

"Excellent!" he roared deep from within his gut. "We'll take you to our cave and from there we will show you the way to Green Mother Village; it isn't too terribly hard to find. Yumi agreed to follow and she along with her crew followed Bretzt and his companions back to the oak. Upon seeing the oak tree, Yumi exclaimed something about Grand Magick and quickly ran up to the tree.

"This is amazing! All these runes! It would take a Grand Hydromancer to make this kind of seal!" Again Bretzt had little clue as to what Yumi was saying, and his fellows were equally baffled. "Whatever is guarded in this tree could greatly aid us in fighting Agrona. Would you allow me to try something?"

"As long as the tree is not damaged, you may proceed," Bretzt said. He was amazed at the words that had come out of his mouth. Why had he allowed a complete stranger to work with a blessed tree? For several nights and days Yumi wandered around that tree, referring to scores of books that her crew carried up from what they called a ship. Finally one night Yumi came running through the cave exclaiming that she had figured it out and was ready to release whatever was trapped in the tree. Yumi still wasn't making any sense and Bretzt and his comrades looked at one another in bewilderment. What was trapped in the tree? How could anything even be trapped in a tree? Bretzt followed Yumi outside and watched as she placed her hands on the tree and began to chant. The chant took almost an hour and by the end Yumi was sweating. Just before Bretzt thought Yumi would pass out, the tree burst like a bubble on the surface of the water. Splinters of the tree exploded in all directions but miraculously didn't hit anyone. From the burst tree flew a massive winged figure. It was lizard-like with a long neck and webbed wings.

"By the Dragons!" Yumi exclaimed as she tumbled backwards from where the tree had been. The creature roared loudly as it climbed into the sky. Bretzt thought he could almost understand her. Wait. How had he known that the dragon was female? What was a dragon? Bretzt became overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that suddenly flooded into his head.

"Children, I shall give you your rightful home as soon as I have rid it of vermin." The creature was addressing Bretzt and the rest of his group. Yumi and her crew were huddled at the edge of the stream staring wide-eyed at the dragon. The Green Mother, Bretzt realized. He relayed his revelation to his fellows and they all confirmed that they had come to the same conclusion. The Green Mother soared off to the north. Yumi and her crew scrambled away and ran as fast as any being could run back to their ship.

When the Green Mother returned, she landed where the great oak tree had been and looked at Bretzt closely. Then her eyes passed on to Joraal, the to Eciil, the Admaas, and finally Crosdam. "My children," she said to them, "you have been faithful to the island and not to outsiders, and for that you shall inherit this island as you should." Suddenly Bretzt was filled with a great pain. He screamed as he fell onto his knees, which weren't knees anymore, he realized. He was now standing on paws. He could see his nose stretch out in front of him. It turned black at the tip as the rest grew a think mat of gray fur. As the pain subsided Bretzt shook himself off and looked around. His companions had all turned into wolves and so had Bretzt. "Now, my children, the island is yours, and as long as I live and am free, so shall it be for you."

Bretzt ran all across the island that day, taking in the new smells, the new sights. The Village was gone, replaced by a thick green and flowery meadow. Bretzt joined his fellow wolves later that day on the coast where the ship had been. It was only a speck on the seem of the world now. Good. Now Bretzt could finally live in peace and happiness. Like all Aulanm, he was finally one with the Green Mother. Salvation in paradise realized.