Returning to the Great Forest, the brave and handsome woodsman, Elum, and Delrin, merchant’s daughter of Abdazon, have given chase to an apparition which appeared to them near the place where her father’s Best Men were lost in the wood. The owl familiar of Elum, named Lux, has accompanied them in this quest, and the three paused for a time to catch their breath, and sup lightly on some forest crackers. Lux stood watch, shuffling softly on a branch nearby, preening her white feathers.
“The trail has gone cold,” Delrin said, despairing.
“I can still see the lights of their passing,” Elum said. “And the shadow that follows them. They’ve a day’s lead on us yet.”
“Then they’re alive!” Delrin said, hopeful.
“They were when they passed this place, at least.”
At this, Delrin’s hopes sank once again.
Elum, seeing this, comforted her, “We’ll find them.”
And so another day they passed in tireless flight, in the manner of the Forest People, touching almost not the ground, leaving no trace but for the light of their passing, which only one trained in the Way could sense. Elum, a native in this wild land, could. Delrin could not — at least not yet. That night, they huddled close together, in a hollow beside a stout old trunk, and Delrin fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Elum did not sleep, however, and watched her gently breathing, and with Lux, they kept guard until the early morning hours, when he roused her from slumber.
“From here we will walk. It’s a short way to the stone circle.”
“What happens there?” Delrin asked, brushing the sleep from her eyes, and straightening her hair.
“We find your father’s men.”
The forest canopy was lighter here than in the depths of the Great Forest, which Delrin had come to know in her travels with Elum. And as dawn broke, rays from the morning sun came through red and soft. They traveled in silence, Elum in the lead, wary, and Delrin following close behind. Lux flew sorties, arcing out ahead and back, tutting signals to Elum, who cooed occasionally in return.
Thus they reached the first stone, blueish in hue, longer than a man, taller, were it standing upright, but it was not. It lay, as though asleep, on the forest floor across the path, moss curling up along its dark faces.
“The Sleeping Lookout, we call him,” Elum indicated quietly. “Who appears at rest, we still pass round with caution.” He pointed to the side, and they skirted carefully round the edge to continue on their trail.
Elum explained, as they continued on, that the stone circle was built at the dawn of time, by a people before the Forest People, when the Great Forest was still young, before Abdazon, Ederron, or Old Qisuth. It was a great open air temple to Acho, the Older Brother, firstborn, whose enormous boulder stood at the center of the ring. When Anthuor first stepped out of the Hypogeum, his hoof struck the back of Acho, who supported him and who still bears the hoof marks high up at the place where Anthuor first came to Quatria, and nibbled the lichen growing there.
“The stones stand watch around Acho, their father. It is a holy place, making it all the more troubling that our trail ends here.”
They came then to the ring of stones, which girded a clearing in the forest, central to which was the giant boulder of Acho, which stood as tall as the largest building in Abdazon, though smaller still than the Foot, or the Stair, or the Great Bridge.
Delrin looked up at it, marveling. “Have you ever gone to see them?”
“The hoof-prints of Anthuor.”
“When I was a child, yes. In happier days. We must now be on our guard.”
They crouched then at the edge of the clearing, and Elum signalled Lux to fly out — carefully — for a better view. She did, veering in a wide circle, before disappearing out of sight behind the great boulder.
From far off, they heard a cry. A man. Delrin recognized it as the voice of Ayad or Ayar, one of the two brothers who comprised her father’s Best Men, who had kept watch over her nearly her life long. Without another thought, she took off running to find him, somewhat to the dismay of Elum, who of course leapt out to follow her.
As they rounded the giant boulder, there was a flash of white somewhere high up, and Lux cried out in warning. A man clad in mail, leather breeches, and a short helm staggered out from the cover of the boulder. He was quite unwell.
“Ayad!” Delrin exclaimed, rushing to him, before Elum could stop her.
He stumbled, and fell to his knees as she approached, and his two gauntleted hands gripped with fierce strength her wrists.
She saw suddenly then that his eyes were not his own, and with horror, tried to pry herself loose from his grasp, and could not. Ghoulishly, he looked up at her, uncomprehending, in time to catch the arrow of Elum, which passed in through the eye socket, and penetrated his brain.
Delrin cried out, as the form of the man slumped away from her, grip on her wrists loosened at last. Elum ran up, and kicked the corpse away, turning it over with his foot. Bloodied was the back, where a short sword had been laid to rest, its hilt broken.