The air outside the chapel was warm and sweet. It was spring, and spring in Braime was always warm. Liam inhaled deeply through his nose, letting the sweet scents of the blossoming flowers tickle his senses. They calmed his nerves, curbed his short temper. He ran his hand through his scraggly black hair and sighed. He exhaled his frustration as he looked about the abbey. Children ran about, screaming and laughing. It was too loud for Liam here. He crossed the yard and left the abbey, right into the heart of Ridgewood. It was noisier here, and dirty. It smelled worse than the abbey, too. Across from the abbey was The Loose Rein, the inn where travelers slept and told tales and the drunks drank until they were sick and penniless. Liam was well acquainted with the local drunks, and dear friends with the bartender Tabbart, but he was in no mood to drink with company. In fact, company was the last thing he desired at the moment. Moving off the main road, through the dirt side paths past the hovels, Liam walked through the town with his hands in the pockets of his trousers. He stopped as the earth dropped away before him, where a hundred feet below the endless forest of Dreunfeng spread like a labyrinth. He stood at the ledge and stared into the expanse, where trees and vines grew tangled as far as the eye could see. Those woods were haunted, or so it was said. It was a place of legend; the most popular tavern tales were those of the cursed woods and the terrors within. The people Ridgewood feared the forests and its evils, and seldom strayed into its darkness. It had been a century since anyone had dared step upon its cursed soil, back when it was given the name Dreunfeng, "jaws of darkness" in Elfish. It seemed the ideal place for brooding.
Liam walked along the ledge of the plateau, past tiny shacks and buckets of filth. The noise of the town were muffled here on the outskirts, but he still needed to get away from the dull hum of civilization. He ambled along until he came to a path at his left, down the side of the cliff. It was much narrower than the road he had ridden up earlier that day, and much wilder. It ran, jagged and small, down the plateau, jutting here and there in and out of the cliff face. Its width varied from step to step. Liam began to stroll down the craggy path, avoiding loose stones and jagged rocks. The path was centuries old, and was almost naturally occurring, according to Father Durant. Of course, according to Father Durant, using the path was also strictly forbidden.
The path was the edge of the kingdom of Braime. Though maps Liam had seen always showed Dreunfeng to be a part of Braime, the jurisdiction of the lord of the county, Count Graff, ended at Ridgewood. Dreunfeng accommodated bandits, murderers, and brigands taking refuge from the long arm of the King's justice. As for the supernatural evils it was said walked the forest floor, they were but fables in Liam's eyes. He had no more belief in the supernatural than he did in a predetermined fate. The worst thing to be found in Dreunfeng were starved, mangy criminals, no match for Liam's sword.
Dreunfeng seemed to envelope him the moment he reached the bottom. The canopy of trees, their branches twisted and gnarled and leafless, was woven tight as a basket. The trees grew so tall and tightly in the forest that it gave off a smothering sense of closeness. The forest had an ambiance as dark as its reputation. The forest lay still, save for the occasional cawing of a crow, and the crackling of dead earth underfoot. The abundant vegetation that tried to grow was quickly snatched up by the vines slithering from the earth. Surely there were thousands of hours of secrets to be found in these ancient woods, mysteries from ages long past.
Liam drove ever deeper into the accursed woods, over stones and under branches. The sword hanging from his side occasionally caught on a thicket. Every so often he would come across a dead, shriveled plant, and would casually kick it up with a tuft of dirt. He found it drove away his frustration, the frustration of being greeted home with another lecture from Father Durant. Durant's austere nature had more than once clashed with Liam's free spirit. Even as a child, they had often exchanged sharp words. They always seemed to be at odds with each other. Liam could remember one conversation they had had many months ago. "I'm not a Sayer like you are, Durant," Liam had said in sharp anger. "I don't need to hear your constant criticisms on how I'm not completely holy."
"Then why do you stay, Liam," Durant had replied, voicing the question that Liam had often tossed about in his head at night. "Why don't you head out on your own, make your own way in some great city? You're certainly old enough, and obviously you know what you're doing better than I can possibly teach you. Evidently, you have everything you could ever need from me. So why are you still here?"
Liam had realized at that moment that Durant had been mocking him. They both knew the reason Liam had not left to take up an apprenticeship with a swordsman: That blonde-haired girl with the sparkling blue eyes. The thought of Claire lightened his mood. They had grown up together, both of them being orphans raised by the sayers of Ridgewood.
Suddenly a thick wall of brush appeared before him. It grew from the forest floor to where the thick canopy of branches blocked Liam's sight, tightly woven shrubbery and boughs and trunks of trees. Pacing left and right, Liam could find no end to the wall of brushwood. He finally resolved to draw his sword and hack a path through; he would not be beaten by a wall of plants. As his sword fell against the vegetation, however, he found the wall gave way with ease. Feeling deceived and rather ridiculous, he dove into the growth.
Liam burst out into a small open copse. In front of him was the great gaping mouth of a cave. The earth rose lazily around it, and heavy foliage grew on and around the tall protruding mound of earth. Liam, his sword still drawn, inched closer to the tunnel entrance with curiosity. Vines hung down in front of the mouth of the cave and seemed to shudder. As Liam stepped into the mouth of the cave, it seemed to breathe, and a low whistling wind rustled Liam's loose clothing. The sunlight shone into the entrance of the cave but was quickly swallowed up as the tunnel extended into blackness. It occurred to Liam that nobody had set foot in this cave in centuries. Liam yearned to discover what lay within. Perhaps it had never before been explored. And it would remain that way, he realized, as long as Liam had nothing to light his way in the darkness.
Liam stepped away from the mouth of the cave and looked to the sky above. The sun sat high overhead. It would be nearly dinnertime now. His gaze returned to the darkness of the cave. It called to him. But he could do nothing without a torch to light the way, he reasoned, and he tore his gaze away from the enveloping dark. He turned to the long, solid wall of green. Looking back and forth, Liam could not distinguish the stop where he had entered the clearing. He cursed, feeling disoriented and lost.
A sound like laughter echoed behind him. Liam snapped around, bringing his sword up, pointing it at empty air. The wind passed through the cave again. The laughter could have only been the noise ringing from the cavern as the breeze tickled the rocks. Liam sheathed his sword and sighed. He turned to the wall of brush and, hoping for good fortune, he dove through to the other side.
It was far cooler in the forest, Liam noted, as he burst through the growth into the forest, where no sunlight could permeate the dense canopy of branches. But what gave him shivers was the thought of the cave behind him, mysterious and inviting. It had a kind of creepy grandeur that made him curse at himself for not having the foresight to bring a torch along. He realized how absurd he was being. Why on earth would he have thought a torch would be necessary for a quiet walk in the woods? Nonetheless, the regret lingered.
As he walked for a while, Liam realized the forest had grown silent. It was not the silence he had experienced walking into the forest, when the forest stirred the quiet and a cawing bird occasionally broke the silence. Now not a bird squawked, not a tree groaned. His own footsteps sounded impossibly loud. It was the same quiet Liam always heard we he had crouched out of sight as a youngster, hiding from Durant or Risa or one of the town guard for having disturbed the peace in some way. But the forest had nothing to hide from.
That was when he heard the voices, ringing out through the barren trees. The sound sent a shock down his spine, leaving his hairs on end. First they were just muffled murmurs, distorted by accompanying footsteps. Liam dropped low to the ground, slowly drawing his blade. He could distinguish only two voices speaking, and the footsteps were a mess of crunches. They could be bandits, Liam thought, or cutthroats. He took cover behind a large tree as the voices drew nearer. He sank as low as he could to the ground, hiding beneath a thick root that had burst from the earth.
They were right on top of him now, Liam could hear. Two distinct voices spoke to each other.
"...can't understand why we can't simply loot the town," Liam heard a voice say as they walked within earshot. "If you can call it a town at all. Our numbers far outmatch the town guard, in both count and skill. Destroying them would be an easy task, and then the town's stores would be ripe for the picking."
"And what of the monks, Welch?" asked a voice, sounding amused. "They are formidable than you give them credit for. Not to mention their prodigy of an orphan. Our eyes have been watching him for a while. The boy is unmatched in skill, both within the town and in our own ranks."
Liam realized with a sick twist the amused man was talking about him. If circumstances weren't so dire, he may have been flattered. At the present, however, he was feeling frightened.
"The boy is green. His hand has not yet spilt blood. Surely even he would fall to our numbers," the voice that belonged to Welch pleaded. "Come now, we are tired of eating roots and berries we find in this gods-forsaken forest."
Suddenly the footfalls stopped. Liam could hear the voice of the other man loud and clear. He laid not a few feet from where the man spat, in an angry voice now, "Felch, you mindless swine, are you truly as stupid as you look? Would you dare show your blade to the flesh of the enemy, so as only to stuff your face? You would dare risk our anonymity like that? Such an act would be a denouncement to the Patron himself!"
Liam heard the shuffling of clothes as Welch, whimpering, replied, "I mean no disrespect to the great one, Raven, I assure you that much."
The one name Raven snorted. "On your feet, Welch, the great Patron enjoys chaos, but surely not among his own ranks. Besides, we have much work to do."
"Work?" Welch repeated, half a question, half a complaint. Raven gave a quiet chuckle. It was a low, dark laugh.
"The master has felt a disturbance running through his binds. His captors are stirring. He believes the Fourth Prophecy will soon be fulfilled."
"The Fourth Prophecy?" Welch echoed, the excitement in his voice audible. "Truly? Then our master's time has come at last!"
"With time, yes," Raven said with a chuckle. Brush crackled as the figures moved again. "There will soon come a day when Ridgewood will fall to our swords, and when that day comes you may stuff your piggish face to your content." There was a long, low chuckle as the footsteps died away with distance, leaving Liam to lie upon the forest floor in silence. He dared not move as he tried to unravel Raven and Welch's words. This was an ill omen. Liam slowly stood up as a crow screamed. The forest was back to its normal silence.
Liam hopped over the large root to investigate the tracks that had been left behind. They led of towards the direction Liam had been walking. He could not help but wonder if they were bound for the cave he had discovered. The thought sent a shiver down his spine. As he investigated the tracks, he noticed something strange. It was slight and difficult to spot, but it was there. Dropping to his hands and knees, Liam was surprised he had seen it at all. The ground was muddled with footsteps, for more than the two voices Liam had heard. They had barely had any impact on the ground. Whoever had made these steps were light, stealthy, and agile. If such a force were to assault Ridgewood, Liam thought, they would easily be able to pick the guard off. The city was not well fortified; it had no city walls, and the only defensible position was the abbey. Liam shuddered, and resolved to return to Father Durant. He would know what to make of all this. He started off, following the footsteps Raven and Welch had left for him, hoping they would lead out of the forest.
Liam had all but forgotten the anger Durant had caused him earlier in the day. He was too preoccupied with the ominous conversation he had overheard and the mysterious, vague references the two men had made. Durant was a wise man, Liam acknowledged, among other things. He too was fair with a blade, and had been Liam's mentor until Liam had defeated him three times in a row in single combat. Durant would be able to take care of this, just as he had for years nursed Liam's wounds and consoled Liam with his troubles.
Liam was panting hard by the time he burst out of Dreunfeng, exiting the woods just as abruptly as he had entered. The tracks had led him to a well-trodden dirt path. He looked up at the sky. The sun hung low in the west. Liam had missed dinnertime, but now he had a direction. He looked the path. On the other side of the road were more trees, but these were much friendlier and inviting. If Liam could remember his cartography correctly, then the trees which he faced must have been of the Eastern Woods. Liam turned and started off West down the path.
Sure enough, the great plateau on which Ridgewood sat soon grew from the horizon before him. His feet padded against hard dirt with each step, kicking up a wake of dust behind him. He did not stop running until he was up the Ridgewood path and in the abbey. The courtyard was deserted. He ran into the longhouse, where dinner had already began. There sat Durant, at the head of his table, supping with his fellow Sayers. They laughed gently as their wooden forks ran along their food and filled their bellies. Each Sayer had shaved his hair short, and they were all dressed the same. Father Durant wore a simple red sash over his shoulders to signify him as the father of the abbey.
"Father Durant!" Liam cried. Durant looked up with a startled look as Liam ran across the room to him. "Father Durant!"
Durant looked Liam's dirty, tattered state up and down and said, "Liam, you're filthy."
"I know," Liam began, "I was walking around in Dreunfeng and I found a cave but-"
Durant cut him off. "Did you say you went into Dreunfeng? Liam, that forest is strictly forbidden. We haven't any idea what kind of evils lie within its cursed woods."
"I do," Liam replied. He recounted his entire tale, from taking solace from the noise in the silence of the forest to discovering the cave to hiding from the Patron followers behind the root. Father Durant listened to his story in grim silence. The faces of the Sayers who sat beside slowly fell as they too listened in on Liam's tale. When Liam had finished, he stood quietly while Durant scowled in thought. The other Sayers whispered between themselves with genuine concern on their faces. By the time Father Durant replied, the entire table had heard Liam's story. All eyes fell on Durant and the room was quiet.
"This is trouble news indeed, if what you tell me is true," Durant said softly to Liam.
"Would I make this up?"
"You have a point," Durant conceded. "You are many things, but a liar is not one of them." He looked about the room, at the eyes awaiting his words. He frowned and stood up.
"I must excuse myself," He said the Sayers at the table. "Pray pardon me, my brothers. Liam, come with me."
Together they left the longhouse. Durant moved quickly on his long legs; Liam almost had to jog to match his pace. They crossed the yard and exited the chapel. They walked along the main street until they arrived at a shabby wooden two-story building. A sign with a mortal and pestle hung from above the door. Durant entered the small apothecary and Liam followed behind him. The smell of herbs and medicines hung in the hung store like too much perfume on a lady. The ceiling hung low above shelves of potions, medicines, and plants. Two candles lit the dark room. A stairway sat immediately in front of them, leading to the second floor. To the left of the stairs was a wooden counter. It was currently unoccupied.
Liam heard voices coming from the floor above. Liam ascended the stairs, following Durant. At the top the stairs a doorway sat on the left wall. Inside were two small beds, the mattresses stuffed with straw. Liam followed behind Durant to the right, where Claire sat with Risa and Evlein over bowls of thick soup. They had been talking and greeted Durant and Liam merrily. "Have you supped yet, Liam?" Risa asked. Liam shook his head. "Father Durant?"
"I have eaten," He replied solemnly. "Though my dinner was tainted by some rather disturbing news."
"I would rather we have this conversation in private, Risa," Durant said. She nodded her understanding.
"Evlein, Clairette, take your bowls to the bedroom, if you would," she said. Claire and Evlein stood, pottage in hand, and walked past them. Liam gave Claire a grave look as she past. When they had retired to the bedroom, Durant and Liam took a seat and Liam recounted the events for the second time that day. Risa's face grew long as Liam mentioned the Patron, the proposed assault on Ridgewood, and the Fourth Prophecy. When he had finished, Risa looked at Father Durant with concern. "What do you make of all this?"
"I believe we have much to fear," he admitted. They seemed to know exactly what to make of the conversation Liam had not been meant to hear. He, however, hadn't the slightest clue as to what it all meant.
"Sorry, but what is the Fourth Prophecy?" He asked. He could vaguely remember the first three Prophecies, bits of the future Islesh had foreseen and written in the Tome. Each Prophecy had been the dawn of a new age. The First Prophecy had been the foundation of the Five Kingdoms back thousands of years ago, when the hearts of men had grown weary enough of their tribal warfare that they had been conquered by five brothers who proclaimed themselves kings of the Five Kingdoms. The Second Prophecy had told of the fall of the Dragons, the most terrible beast to walk the earth or scour the sky. The Third Prophecy had something to do with a sword, Liam recalled, but the Fourth Prophecy, the prophecy that had yet to be fulfilled, escaped his mind entirely.
"The Fourth Prophecy tells of chaos among men and the betrayal of the Immortals," Father Durant summarized solemnly. Liam nodded, suddenly seeing the situation how Durant had seen.
"That's not good," Liam replied. "How do we stop it?"
Durant and Risa both laughed, though their faces were still grim.
"Stop it? You can not stop a Prophecy. Nobody can stop a Prophecy. And we certainly can't stop the chaos. Only the Immortals can do that. The Fourth Prophecy says the Immortals will return to Alstatia to stop the destruction.
"So then what do we have to worry about? The Immortals will take care of it."
"There is more to the Prophecy," Risa began to say, but she was cut off by a scream that pierced the air. They heard a large thud from the bedroom beside them as they stood. Liam was the first one to enter the room. He stopped in his tracks when he was Claire pressed up against the wall in terror.
Evlein writhed on the floor of the bedroom, his eyes rolling up and down as his hands convulsed. He flopped about like a fish out of water, rolling and shaking in his spilled soup. Liam stared. Suddenly Durant was behind him.
"Get him onto the bed."
Durant was calm as he pushed past Liam and scooped up Evlein's small, trembling body. Durant sent him gently on the bed as Risa ran to the head of the bed, crying his name. She cupped her fingers beneath his head, holding as it moved violently. Liam moved to the bed as well, watching Evlein's face as it twisted. Drool ran from his mouth as he shook. Durant pressed his arms against the boy in an attempt to hold him down. The convulsing stopped as Evlein's eyes rolled up and his eyelids flicked. For a moment everything was still.
"Evlein?" Durant asked tentatively. Then Evlein opened his mouth. The voice he spoke with was not entirely his own. His youthful voice was there, but there seemed to be a second layer to Evlein's voice. It was sharp, and crisp, and smooth, and gentle all at once. Risa, Durant, and Liam all stepped back together as Evlein began to speak.
"We are your fathers, your mothers, your masters, your kin and teachers. The time has come for humanity to play her part in the dealings of her parent. The golden-hair child of none must accept her destiny and make the necessary sacrifices for the sake of her fellow man. The Prophecy of the Fourth Age, as my only son has thus written, will soon be fulfilled. Look to the east for the white tree, and seek Aedromina. When you have woken her, your journey shall begin."
Evlein said nothing for a moment and Liam stared, his eyes wide. Evlein lay motionless on the bed as Durant and Risa looked at him with similar expressions of shock. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared glossily at the ceiling. Liam could not tell whether Evlein was still breathing. He was about to ask when Evlein took a deep gasp of air.
"Evlein!" Claire cried with relief, running from the wall to the bed beside him. He looked around as he caught his breath, wild confusion in his eyes. The Durant and Claire knelt beside him as he lay on the bed, and his sister's hands were still tangled in his hair. Soup soiled most of his shirt, sticking to him as it cooled. He looked up at Liam, utterly clueless.
"What happened?" He asked. Liam tried to think of an easy, gentle way to explain, but it was Durant who answered him.
"You were possessed," he answered simply, "By an Immortal. The Angel King Niphus."
Evlein look at Durant is if he had just breathed fire. Liam and Risa and Claire all nodded as he looked to them, disbelief on his face. "What did it... what did I say?"
"Our greatest fears are now confirmed," Durant said gravely. "The Fourth Prophecy will soon be realized. And it would seem," he added, looking at Claire, "our golden-haired orphan has a role to play in this story."