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TitleThe Fang of Crazen
UserJolanthe
RankingWinner
Post Date (Visible)September 2021
Content

Page 1

~ Written especially for my dearest, darling Coraline ~

Page 2

106 A.R.G. (or 106 years After the Rise of the Goloth)

The constant howling of the wind washes out all other sound, providing a chilling backdrop of white noise that is almost lulling when it whistles at the trough of its range. Just as incessant is the cascade of snow that whips and tumbles about the mountain trail, which is nearly hypnotic in its eddying onslaught. The form of an elfen wanderer wading through the building banks grimaces as she attempts to squint through the wrath of the blizzard, but alas, there is only so much insight to be granted by the light of the moon.

Pale silvery reflections from the sparkling snowdrifts offer the smallest guide to assess footfalls in the dead of the night, and even the trail of blood that the elfen leaves in her wake is soon consumed and concealed anew. Numbness continually creeps inwards from the extremities - especially her toes, which remain soaked in ice-slush that has invaded her boot's inner linings. No matter how she trudges along, it is impossible to prevent more snow from packing in from between the boot collars and her pants.

Between the movement of the flurries, the sound of the wind, and the cessation of feeling brought on by the cold, it becomes ever more tempting to sleep. Stinging bits of ice and puffed snowflakes alike catch upon her eyelids and force her to rub her one good eye into intermittent vision. Trembling knees and shaking shoulders seek reprieve upon even the barest of flat surfaces.

But there is no time. No rest. With so little left at hand, there is no choice but to forge on. The need to reinforce this inner voice is so great that the elfen does not, at first, notice a hint of sunny gold piercing through the blankets of white and the cold glimmer lent by moon and stars. Nor does she immediately hear the voice struggling to be heard over the din of the blizzard. It takes a close proximity for her to notice either - with the flame of the lantern being close enough to see it flicker against a robed silhouette before she realises it isn't some form of mirage. What was the voice saying?

"... shelter. Do you need shelter?"

"YES!"

The elfen practically bellows out the word following a fit of coughing, not used to using her voice over the course of her solitary march. The only confirmation that she was given was the outstretching of an arm against the light of the lantern, and a beckoning motion drawing her to follow. The wanderer can only wade along after, straining to keep her sight on the silhouette ahead and offering only enough pause to avoid tripping over her own feet. The crash of water falling from a height teases her notched ears, providing some much needed contrast to the howling of the wind as the shapes of barren trees enter into the periphery of her eyesight.

A faint hint of smoke rendered from burning cedar teases her nostrils before she can finally distinguish the outline of a structure before the robed silhouette leading her, heralding the subsequent vision of a fire being exposed within an open door frame. Gasping as though inhaling one final breath before diving into deep waters, the weathered elfen tumbles straight through the doorway and flat onto the floor. The sound of the door slamming behind her barely seems to register as she curls towards the warmth of the flames, arching her back with a shudder as she strains to restore full movement to her fingers and toes by thrusting them as close to the heat as she can bear. It takes a heavy woolen blanket falling upon her from above to snap her from her trance and remind her she is in the company of another.

Her attention snaps suddenly to her host. Or hostess? Oh, yes, it is certainly the latter. She rubs both her scarred socket and her good eye as she blinks incredulously and tilts her head curiously at her hostess.

"Greetings, Wanderer. Sorry for rushing you along inside, but with such truly frightful weather I thought it best not to tarry. It appears you are in dire need of my fire's warmth. The walls here are sturdy and well insulated - you might find it best to remove your gloves and boots so they can dry while you warm yourself more directly. I might assist you if you've need for it, else I might prepare some fresh tea for the occasion."

Standing before her is what appears to be some form of krokani priestess. Perhaps on the shorter side for her race, but still just as tall as the elfen herself. She has flawless alabaster skin framed by luscious, silky black hair that retains just enough volume to curl gently at the end of its shoulder-length. Full, bushy eyelashes frame her singularly large eye, coloured a dusky indigo streaked through with warm radials of carmine. Her robes appear to be made of cashmere, and richly dyed in indigo and carmine to match her features, with a vibrant gold trim that is not the slightest bit dampened by the melting snow seeping into the stitches. The elfen is not sure quite what she was expecting, but this was far more striking than whatever mountain dweller she has otherwise encountered on her journey.

Hey eyes dart away to the room so as not to stare, and the sight of her surrounding environs prompt her to instinctively shrink in upon herself. The snow melting from her shoulders is pooling on the richly varnished floorboards beneath, choice stone flanks every surface of the hearth, and elaborate tapestries of elegant mountain trails arching over lush valleys cover every wall. A mahogany bookshelf chock full of aged manuscripts occupies the far wall, while the nearest wall houses a small shrine ornamented with three golden statuettes. The elfen can only recognise Kiakoda among them, and has to assume the others are also Vernal Gods.

She feels cheap, dirty, and miserable in such a place. Her eyes eventually settle upon a window looking outside, back into the raging blizzard. In the distance she can make out the lip of a waterfall, with a grove of trees crowded around either bank. The sound of the cascading falls can almost worm its way into her ears over the crackling of the flames before the priestess interrupts her thoughts.

"Are you quite alright? You don't need to worry about making a mess. Tidying up helps keep me busy when I have to stay locked away inside regardless. Please, go ahead and attend to yourself."

The elfen becomes aware of how tightly she has drawn upon herself as she listens, and stiffly unfolds her limbs to do as instructed in silence. The priestess watches for a brief while as the wanderer carefully removes her gloves and boots as suggested, and arranges them so that the warmth of the fire can reach the interiors of each and speed their drying. Seemingly satisfied, the priestess turns away to busy herself with an already steaming kettle. When did she brew the water? Was it on the hearth before they arrived? No matter, she feels far more at ease not being watched. Her eyes return to the outside view of the window as her ashen gray fingertips work into drab olive green knuckles. Though she fails to return much in the way of color to her skin, the gradual return of greater dexterity is reassuring.

Some measure of tension returns to her body as the priestess brings her gaze back around to fall upon her. The elfen's eye timidly turns to meet the krokani's, as the latter offers up an ornate gold-trimmed tea cup with a silent and encouraging smile. The deep jade hue of the tea is all the more vibrant against the white porcelain containing it. Its grassy aroma coaxes images of spring within her mind, even against the visible snowstorm raging outside through the window, and the urge to not just drink - but quaff - becomes irresistible.

And so she does.

Page 3

The priestess refuses to break her gaze even as the wanderer drinks, which slowly becomes more unnerving as the warm, robust vigor of the tea begins to course through her veins. The elfen can't escape the feeling she is being closely scrutinised and studied.

"How's the tea?"

The elfen squints narrowly at her teacup before downing the rest all at once, pausing to squish it within her cheeks for a few moments until the lingering cold finally dies away. The elfen's lack of response only gets more awkward as she gulps down the last drop and finds the attention of the priestess has yet to waver in the slightest.

"Nostalgic."

"Oho, is that so? Are you from around these parts?"

The elfen hesitates for only a moment longer, nipping at her lower lip as her gaze falls squarely into the window and the mounting snowdrifts beyond.

"My home village was along the edge of a forest, right by the feet of the Carack Mountains. This tastes much like the tea my neighbors would share with me."

"Mm, that makes sense then. The tea was picked in a valley just west of the furthest ridge of the Caracks - and this mountain is along the range opposite of that same valley."

A few rapid blinks register the elfen's surprise, and for the first time since meeting there is an expression of greater relief on her haggard features.

"Closer than I thought. I completely lost track a few days ago, and even before then I've been guided by word of mouth moreso than map."

The priestess arches her brow with some degree of perplexion as she assesses this answer.

"You were heading home without knowing the way quite well?"

The relief on the wanderer's face melts away into a sullen cast as she reaches up to cradle her face and trace the broken ridge of her bent nose.

"I've been traveling with a trade caravan to help get the best prices on our grain harvest. Word reached us that our villages had been razed by a Soulless. Muud, was it? The name didn't matter to me at the time - I had to come back as soon as I could. We are a people close to the land and each other. If all else is gone, it falls on me to bury what can be buried, mend what might be mended - even if just in memoriam."

Empathy works its way into the priestess's features as she listens. She pours out another cup of tea as the wanderer comes to a close with her revelation, then turns to rummage through the contents of a tall cabinet. Without turning back just yet, the priestess observes:

"To have such urgency and dedication to those matters is admirable, but it looks like you've come rather heedlessly and unprepared. Have you really run all this way back without a pack or coat to your name?"

The elfen rubs the broken ridge of her nose all the more intently as she winces, having been freshly reminded of the pain that is returning as the numbness of the cold fades.

"I was waylaid by bandits. One day ago? Two days ago? I don't know. They took nearly everything - surprised they left me with any clothes at all. I haven't slept since. Had to find my way all the more with nothing to sustain or protect me."

The priestess whirls around all at once, with a peculiar bit of fruit on a small cloisonne plate.

"Oh, goodness, why didn't you say so earlier? Is that where all of these injuries have come from? I thought they looked older than that!"

"What! Oh, well, you're not totally wrong. Many of my scars are old and I am prone to accidents. I actually lost my one eye falling into an oven at just the wrong time and angle and... oh, I seem to have lost my bandages."

Though the elfen hadn't noticed it prior, taking more than a cursory examination of herself revealed her newer wounds were visible and marked by frost exposure. The warmth of the fire had weakened the clots keeping them sealed, and she was now bleeding and dribbling puss upon the blanket that had been offered to her, as well as the varnished floorboards beneath. She scarcely has time to mumble out an apology before the plate is summarily thrust into her hands, and the priestess is back to her cabinet, frantically rummaging about for something.

"No, no time for apologies! Stop moving around now, I'll sort you out. Try to eat if you can. I have a poultice that might help - it will absolutely sting on first contact, but should be manageable and ease you thereafter."

The wanderer blinks and stares dumbfoundedly at the plate now in her hands. The fruit that rests upon it is definitely peeled and pickled, and exudes a strong, spicy aroma. Peach? No, plum. A plum with pale golden flesh, streaked through with highlights of carmine. She winces sharply as the poultice is suddenly applied, and diverts her attention momentarily to regard the priestess's swift and deft movements. As the burning sensation subsides into a refreshing tingle and gauze is measured and wrapped about her wounds, she finally bites into the plum. It is tender, tangy perfection - immensely juicy with just the right balance of sweetness. She suddenly finds herself deeply conscious of where bits of plum might drip now.

"Thank you," the wanderer manages to mumble out through a mouthful of fruit, only now realising she might not have expressed any gratitude just yet. Still so weary and wary.

As she draws away to inspect her patch-up work, the priestess smiles brightly in answer.

"Ah, you are welcome. Perhaps we should be more properly introduced. My name is Yelneid! Wish we could have met under more fortunate circumstances."

Tilting her head curiously, the elfen muses, "Yelneid? Sounds like you've been held to a high standard since birth."

Perplexed, the priestess answers back, "Oh? What makes you say that?"

"Hmm. Well, I can't profess to have precise and deep knowledge, but I retain trivia and minutiae quite well. If I'm not mistaken, Yelneid in the krokani tongue alludes to purity, no? Almost like your parents fully intended for you to be a priestess as you are now."

Yelneid lets loose a mirthful chuckle, futilely attempting to seal her lips with her fingers before giving up to speak again.

"Well! I don't think I would say that I am a priestess, but it would be unfair to suggest you're wrong on all counts otherwise. I like to think of myself more as a hermit. Ah, but you haven't shared your name yet, if you don't mind?"

The elfen pauses with this disclosure, and her eyes drift to the groves by the waterfall outside. Not a priestess? A hermit? How strange. As she studies the trees outside, an answer finally comes to mind.

"You may call me Willow."

Yelneid's eye follows Willow's own line of sight, a wry tinge playing at the corner of her lips as she likewise regards the trees outside. Her expression fluidly shifts to one of greater concern as she returns her focus to the elfen.

"You're not thinking of heading back out there, are you Willow?"

The elfen frowns and shifts uncomfortably where she sits. Something in the back of her mind bids her to choose her words carefully. With the warm spice and sweetness of the plum yet lingering on her throat, she gestures around herself.

"The thought has certainly occurred to me. I am used to more meagre means and meagre ends. As welcoming as you are, I can't help but feel out of place in your... hut? No, it is a cabin, certainly. And I am not used to company just now. That said, it doesn't look like the storm is letting up at all."

Yelneid's eye veils half-shut as she listens, before closing entirely to nod along to the given assessment.

"Indeed. When the wind howls like this, it is liable to keep up until sunrise, if not later. Going out as you are now will simply bring you right back to death's door, as you were before. I am sorry if my furnishings discomfit you, but I will remind you that I invited you in as you were and with no expectation on your part. Your presence does not impose on my peace. Please feel free to shelter here as long as you need to, especially with the Fang of Crazen roaming the mountains."

Willow fidgets as she carefully studies the whorls of the wood on the floor.

"The Fang of Crazen?"

That is a name - or title - that she is completely unfamiliar with.

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Her expression waning into sombre solemnity, Yelneid focuses her eye wholly on Willow as she speaks. The elfen can see the pale, sky blue hue of her good eye reflected within the krokani's pupil as she looks up.

"Indeed. It started as rumours some years ago, and has blossomed into a full blown legend. The villagers in these parts speak of a raving lunatic that gouges out their victim's eyes, pikes their head, and consumes the rest. As you continue your journey from here, you will likely see the eyeless heads piked along the trails if you have not already. They say it is a rogue Goloth - twelve feet tall, utterly fearless, and endlessly hungry. The Fang is more active at night, and would not hesitate to use the cover of a storm such as this one to predate on the weak."

A shiver trails down Willow's spine as she takes this in, silently assessing the validity of such a tale. Yelneid's gaze falls to the floor this time as she kneads her thumbs, suddenly displaying much greater timidity now than at any point prior.

"Please stay the night. You can sleep in my bed if you think it would afford you better rest."

Willow vigorously shakes her head in refusal at this notion, and moves to firmly pat the floorboards.

"No way. I mean, no way I could take up a bed. I am used to thin tents and the ground, and prefer them as a general rule. If nothing else, I will feel closer to the energies latent in the earth. I will stay - but as unobtrusively as possible, which may be difficult with my recent inability to sleep."

Folding her arms over her chest, Yelneid murmurs, "I could prepare and offer a sleeping aid, certainly. But I get the feeling you will not want it."

The elfen replies with a simple nod of confirmation, and appears more comfortable now that the push for charity is being reined back.

"In that case, I will retire shortly from now. Do let me know if you could use anything else to be more comfortable."

Willow speaks no more, and instead opts toward sprawling out as wide and far upon the floor as possible. She can feel Yelneid's gaze linger for a time yet before the sound of shuffling of feet cease. She must be in her bed now. Still, the elfen can't shake the feeling that she is still being observed or monitored. Her fingers flex as her palms pit heavily into the floorboards, as though seeking to retreat through and beneath them. She becomes conscious of the full weight of her form pressing downwards, and mentally wills it heavier. Somewhere beneath, the comforting presence of the mountain seems to whisper to her amidst the crackle of dying embers. The warmth of the fading fire feels as though it is reflected by the land itself - is this truly happening, or wishful thinking on her own part? The cries of raging winds beyond the cabin walls remind her of her predicament otherwise. Slowly, steadily, her consciousness drifts away.

It only begins to return with the coaxing of a vibrant, grassy aroma - a reprise of the tea from the night prior. Sunlight is spilling in from an azure sky outside, and a new fire roars upon the hearth. In spite of all these things, Willow remains somewhat ill at ease.

As her eyes sweep the room, she finds all the tapestries absent, leaving naught but bare wooden walls. The shrine is now but a simple construction, without any significant ornamentation. The golden statuettes are entirely absent. Granted, the hearth and bookshelf are still present - those seem very real. Her focus is interrupted by Yelneid presenting her with a simple clay tea cup. Willow turns it over in her hands a few times as she regards it. It feels like it must be the same cup she drank from last night.

"Did you sleep well, Willow?"

"Why haven't you killed me yet?"

"Pardon?"

The question seems to have genuinely thrown the krokani for a loop. Her pupil dilates with some touch of alarm as she takes a physical step backwards. An awkward silence hangs over the air for a few seconds as Yelneid quietly studies her elfen guest.

"You are the Fang of Crazen, are you not?"

Yelneid's expression is flat and emotionless for several more long moments, before she drives a hand into her own chest. The skin ripples and parts around her fingers like the surface of water, as she grips upon something just beneath. Bone? It looks like her own sternum. The thought makes Willow blanch as Yelneid tugs, drawing forth a massive golden sickle that scrapes against the ceiling when raised overhead.

"I suppose that technically, this would be it."

The elfen regards the wicked instrument impassively, watching its otherworldly, indigo aura pulse as Yelneid gently turns it about in her palm as though it were a simple penknife. Now accepting of this reality after the initial shock, Willow does not flinch when the krokani plunges the sickle straight back into her chest, which ripples momentarily before sealing back into smooth, flawless skin anew. Her clothes likewise remain immaculate and in-tact.

"Okay. But the Soulless are not picky eaters, and I expect an actual Soulless thrall would likewise maim and kill and not bother with questions later. Either that title is terribly deceptive, or you have some other use for me, no?"

"Well, it's not like I picked it for myself. That's what the remaining villages around here started calling me. And as for you, I..."

Even with Willow seated on the floor and Yelneid towering over her, the krokani somehow appears to be the one who is lost and timid in this instance.

"Normally, I can see right through a person. I typically don't like looking into the eyes of strangers - I can see exactly what they are. Who they are. Their darkest desires and intentions. It's why I pluck the eyes out. But I can't see any of that in your eye, Willow. There is naught but morning mist therein, with the occasional glimpse of something more. Something else. It is both infuriating and intriguing. I don't know what to make of you."

Willow rises, drinking deeply of her tea as she does so. She shuts her eye for a few minutes as she mulls upon this, before opening it again to look directly at Yelneid. She sees the pale blue of her eye reflected in the krokani's pupil once again.

"Not even now?"

"Not quite. Almost... is it the Caracks? With a distant village at their feet? No, it's gone already. I might have imagined it."

"No, you did not. I don't understand the how or why, but you appear to be as honest as you're capable of."

"And what of you, Willow? You seem to be much more spiritually capable than you've let on. How do you hide yourself so well?"

Willow downs the rest of the tea eagerly as she settles back down, deciding it is better to leave the krokani in a relative position of physical power. It is admittedly delicious tea, and she has missed it. Her thoughts and senses leave her wistful.

"I have never been trained, but I suppose I cannot discount that I have more latent potential than I've realised. There were some in my village that did listen to the spirits. I wish I could talk to them now. I've only listened to the songs of the earth."

Yelneid regards Willow curiously, while the latter sprawls out flat and level with the floor once again. The krokani steps closer and kneels as she listens.

"I've been listening to it for as long as I've farmed with my family. Can you hear it? Even through the floorboards, it is louder here than it was at home. The veil must be thin around here - the way to the spirit realm closer than in other parts. Some places are like that. Maybe that's just how this mountain is. As I slept, I heard the stones thrum in tune to the earth. But... the metal did not sing. The gold I saw in this room gave no response. When I woke, I could no longer see it, and a number of other things. I wish I could tell you more, but I don't have full understanding myself. Hopefully that makes some degree of sense."

Yelneid can only scratch at her temple through her silken black hair, visibly confused and confounded. She opens her mouth, but pauses - not once, but twice - before seeming to settle on exactly what her next line of inquiry should be.

"So that's how you figured it out, then? Who I am?"

"Well, in part. It made it impossible for me to not want to ask. But you know, claiming that a rogue Goloth is roaming over the mountains when you are a krokani, and the only soul I've met apart from bandits all the while does seem terribly suspicious, don't you agree?"

Yelneid laughs brightly as she settles to sit next to where Willow lies.

"Oh, when you put it that way, certainly! But you'd be surprised by how many who came before you who didn't bat an eye - who only seemed to be half-listening as their thoughts raced elsewhere. Nothing invites wicked thoughts from the heart quite so quickly and readily as the glimmer of gold. It's why I, perhaps, hold such preference to ostentatious glamours."

This prompts Willow to look up to Yelneid.

"And wicked delights bring wicked ends?"

"Hmm, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy bringing quite a few of them to their end. Yes, I think I'll agree on that."

The elfen does not look away now, but remains persistently watching Yelneid.

"Please, tell me your story - of how you've come to be the Fang of Crazen."

The krokani blinks and shrinks away for a moment, uncertain, before creeping back and motioning for Willow to come closer, as though it is necessary to whisper the answer.

Page 5

"Yelneid! It is time for your writing lessons!"

A small, dark-haired krokani darts out from the hallway and into the study, before simultaneously climbing into and covering within her chair at the desk. Though her mother seems primed to strike, she relaxes her stance.

"You still need to hone your punctuality, my dear. There is ritual in routine, and you shouldn't need your mother to keep you on task when we all know your schedule. Now! On with your runes and scripts."

Every day the same schedule. Every day the same routine. For as long as she can remember, rule and order commands the life of this krokani girl. The demands of her mother are insistent and persistent. And each time she believes she has met all expectations, the girl finds that the bar only rises. She would have stopped long ago, if the threat of beatings for shirking were not held against her.

At least the other children do not mock or tease her, though sometimes the girl wishes they would. They usually don't even acknowledge her beyond a spare glance. The ever watchful eye of her mother protects her in this regard, but the boon leaves her feeling hollow when she only gets to observe the others through a window, and see them play together while she is ever apart.

As she gets older, every aspect of life grows more narrow and strict. There's no time for play - soon the only reprieve she gets is the occasional plum from trees in their backyard. And where exactly did her father go? Or rather, when? It is impossible for the little krokani girl to know, for he was already barely there - and cowed by mother at every opportunity. The girl is never totally sure if she should hate or admire her father for seemingly running away. If only it were that easy for her!

But she can't, because of the Fang. Stupid Fang of Crazen.

Her village seems to be locked in the grip of paranoid rumours over this so-called monster. The disaster with the krokani Vernal left a vacuum of fear that seemed all too easy to feed. The proclamation was that a Goloth known as the Fang of Crazen roamed their mountains, and would raze any village that did not appease his wishes.
The demand was simple: a child as tithe, to be collected from an isolated location. The purer the child, the longer the wait could go until the next tithe.

But what exactly did that mean? What does it mean to be "pure"? Some of the more skeptical villagers thought this was just a convenient means for the Fang to make demands more or less frequent on whim, but everyone feared the Goloth and refused to read too closely into it. But at least one wealthy krokani was ready to interpret it as she desired, and leverage it for greater clot.

Right on down to the name of her child: Yelneid. How much more on the nose do you have to be? She seemed to think she was subtle and cunning, but everyone else in the village seemed to know and understand. There were occasions where she even publicly argued with the village elder over the worthiness of her daughter, only to be admonished and turned away - which would later result in her wrath being exacted upon her child in kind.

Year after year, it was never enough. Until finally, on the krokani girl's ninth birthday, her mother brought her to a storehouse on the outskirts of town. Beaming with pride, the mother instructed her child to wait patiently inside, and to not open the doors for any reason. Mother would return for her soon. The lie is so transparent that the girl cringes as the sound of a heavy latch locking the door from the outside scrapes against her ears. This was it. The time has finally come.

Even so, the krokani girl did not move from where she first sat down. Even if she escaped, what then? Where would she flee to that mother would not find her? And if she did somehow succeed, there would be other children. Presumably far more than would be needed otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, if she was: polished enough, educated enough, refined enough, pretty enough, groomed enough, and innocent enough, it might spare another. If the time until the next tithe was pushed far back enough, maybe it might just be worth it. In the girl's more lonely moments, she would often reflect upon this.

The wait was the most surprising part of the experience. After so much regiment in her life, she expected the Fang to arrive shortly and punctually. But the evening passed without event. And the next day passed without event. And as the moon rose for the next night, it grew difficult to ignore her hunger pangs. Perhaps Soulless abominations are more inclined towards taking their sweet time than she had previously believed.

Finally, the bolts and latches of the door on the farside of the storehouse stirred to life. Strange - why enter from that side instead of the one on the road, where her mother came from and brought her? No matter. The girl fixes her attention on the door and waits.

What she was expecting was a towering brute, covered in muscle and armour and terrible Soulless stuff. But it was just the village elder? Granted, he makes for a tall and imposing krokani with a heavyset figure, but it was still a great breach of expectation. The confusion of this revelation did not turn to fear until she looked the elder in the eye. His dark brown eye, normally very dim and tired looking, was burning with hunger. The immense sense of desire burning within his features was something the girl had never seen before, and in spite of being such a familiar figure in her life, it rendered him strange and alien in this instance. She couldn't help but freeze, fear coursing through her veins and pushing a massive lump up her throat that prevented her from screaming.

As if the scene and situation were not surreal enough yet, the elder could scarcely push the heavy door open before lapsing into a massive coughing fit. For a moment it sounded like he was calling out to her - calling her name - but then he collapsed in a heap all at once, clutching his chest with an aggressive twitch. Cautiously, the girl approaches her fallen elder. His only movements come from his eyelids and fingertips, digging against his ribs and failing to guide his slowly clouding eye in any given direction. Soon he stills with a ragged gasp, leaving the open doorway behind him.

What did her mother say again? Yelneid is pretty sure she was only told not to open the doors herself. Nothing regarding other people opening the doors for her, right? Fueled by the boredom of the prior wait and the fear induced by the elder's erratic behaviour, she carefully stalks out into the night, following the evident trail that the elder must have followed to get here. From the trail, the girl can make out many of the houses within the village in the distance, largely obscured by the foliage of the trees. Though they occasionally vanish as the path winds and wends about, it never strays too far away. She progressively becomes more aware of the fact that the path is leading towards the elder's house. Did he walk this way to avoid being seen on the roads? Why would he do that?

There is a divergence in the path that forces her to pause. One visibly leads on along a course she expects, but the less trod trail does so much more to invite her curiosity. With only a moment's pause, she turns to enter deeper into the woods, encroached on all sides by weeds as she struggles to see clearly under the pale moonlight. Soon, she comes upon a dense grove of plum trees with some sort of pit dug out amongst them.

The stench is immense as she enters into the ring of plum trees surrounding the pit. The dim light of the stars and moon struggle to illuminate the pit through the canopy overhead, and Yelneid wavers with uncertainty as to whether climbing into the pit is a prudent course. Her stomach wants to vomit, and her legs want to run, but her mind and heart push her to enter and feel around for what is inside.

Bones. Lots of bones. So many bones! And not only bones - there are fresh bodies. Krokani bodies. Not adult krokani, no, they are all children. Tears begin to stream down her cheeks as she desperately claws through the corpses in search of any sign of life. Recognition dawns upon her as she finds different faces she remembers. Jaery. Pyotr. Milga. Borlin. Sonascha. They were all sacrifices for the Fang, sacrifices that had come before her.

But there are too many - far too many - to account for only the sacrifices. There's too many, and why are they here? Weren't they to be taken away? Slowly the rot and stench and bones seem to erode at her sanity. There is no Fang. It's all been a lie created by horrible adults. They'll keep doing this regardless of what happens to her. She wants to curl up and die, as her despair swells and seeks to swallow her.

And then the voices started.

No. Why? Why die? What did you do? You did nothing - you always did exactly as you were told, yes? Dying is what they want, isn't it? Why give them what they want? Why remain compliant and complacent? Why allow this mound of bones to grow even higher? Why not end it? Why not break the cycle? Help end it all. We'll end it all.

The tears in her eye burn like fire as she accepts and acknowledges the words whispered from within the pit. Her vision goes red, and she feels as though she is floating. A sense of euphoria takes over as she wends along her way and skips about, experiencing a distinct manic swing from moments earlier. The endless world of red feels reassuring, empowering, and enthralling.

It is impossible to tell how much time has passed when shapes and forms begin to return from the endless sea of red, but it must have been quite a while. It would take a long time to flank the village roads with all these pikes and heads. So many dead vermin - all these spineless guardians that pretended to care when they probably knew about that pit all along. Now they're literally spineless! The thought makes her giddy as she frolics, covered in carmine and playfully twirling about her sickle.

Hmm, but where did this sickle come from? It doesn't even feel like a proper tool - within her hand, it feels like an extension of herself, as she has heard carpenters and cobblers wax similarly about their tools.

This. This is the real Fang of Crazen, and it did not come from without. It came from within.

Page 6

It is only when she draws a conclusion to her tale that Yelneid realises that Willow is weeping. She draws her own arms about her waist, rocking slowly in place as it dawns on her that she must have entered something of a trance while recounting her story. Did she become too enthusiastic in the process? Maybe. It is, admittedly, not something she has had a lot of practice with.

Thus does she regard Willow sympathetically and apologetically.

"You'll have to excuse me if I got carried away. It was naturally a very personal story - one I have never told before. One I have never been asked before. I'm not even sure if I am recalling everything properly, as I did do my best to forget many things. I can only hope you don't regret it, and that it doesn't weigh even more woes upon you - particularly when you still have your journey ahead of you. I like to think that I... carved it away, at least."

The sobbing of the elfen slowly steadies in the following silence, with Willow visibly struggling to choke back her tremors enough to speak.

"Where is it?"

"Hmm?"

"Where is your village? Or what's left of it?"

Yelneid finds herself once more stunned into silence, unable to comprehend the intentions of her guest.

"Not far from here, truthfully. I've never really tried to stray too far from the village. I probably can't - and I think I should not. It is my responsibility in many ways. And besides that, I do like to heap the bandits and murderers that cross me in that pit. They deserve to be there."

Slowly, Willow's head rises so that the pale sky blue of her eye can meet the indigo of the krokani's.

"Lead me there."

Yelneid is becoming so accustomed to being floored by this elfen that her shock is now subsiding as quickly as it arises.

"What, really? Are you serious?"

"Yes. Please show me."

Yelneid shrinks from the intensity of Willow's gaze for a moment, looking out the window to the still winter's night beyond. There is no blizzard today, and the constellations are brilliant in the clear skies overhead.

"We're coming back if you start to show signs of fatigue or chills."

They still take some time to disembark, with Willow's boots and gloves requiring mending. After converting a blanket into a makeshift cloak, Yelneid decides it must be a safe enough venture. The snow has had time to settle, and while it isn't as fluffy and downy, it has packed and is easier to stand in - and move through in general.

As they depart from the cabin, Willow can't help but notice that Yelneid leaves no footprints in her wake. The barren trees grow more twisted and gnarled as they weave along a forest path through the mountain. Then, slowly, they begin to pass pikes. Most of them are quite old, with naught but a dried out skull left on its end. Others are mottled with patches of black, decaying flesh, bits of hair, and vile ichor. Burnt husks of old structures are seen here and there, with the occasional untouched house among them and no clear rhythm or reason to the destruction. Even the preserved structures appear black with grime and deterioration, creating a stark landscape of black and white for them to traverse. Visible grooves in the snow, rendered from something being dragged along prior, begin to command the course of their path. Willow slowly inhales and exhales, ready for what is to come.

The pit is just as described: rank even in the cold, and full to the brim with ancient horrors. Without hesitation, Willow enters the pit and sets to work.

"Hey! What are you doing now?"

"Sorting out who is who so they can be properly buried. Might be pretty difficult."

"Wait, that's why you wanted to come out here?"

"Yes, of course. Why did you think I wanted to bring this shovel along? Hmm, do you think you can help identify some of the children, based on what you remember?"

Though she huffs and puffs, Yelneid calms at the mention of the village victims. Sighing and relenting, she joins Willow in this pit. Ah, yes, this was Kaval. She lived next door and liked to listen to the birds sing in the morning. Ah, yes, this was Pyotr. He loved stargazing. This one was Sonascha. She went everywhere with a stuffed squirrel named Acorn. But was this one Stala, or Kieta? They always had a biscuit with them, at any rate.

It was difficult to recall or relate much. This doesn't appear to bother Willow, however, who is absolutely relentless in sorting bones in rings radiating from around the pit. As full skeletons are realised, she begins to dig. And does she ever dig! Yelneid can only stare, dumbfounded as the elfen plows through snow and soil at a furious pace. As the moonlight illuminates her scars and her notched ears wobble, she doesn't look too far off from an animated cadaver herself. Yet never once does her energy seem to waver, even though fueled by nothing but tea and plum from a night prior. And then epitaphs are carved on small wooden markers for each grave.

Here lies Kaval, ever with her favoured chorus.
Here lies Pyotr, sleeping well under the constellations.
Here lies Sonascha, ever with Acorn.
Whether Stala or Kieta, their biscuits were bountiful.

In time, a full helix of little graves spirals out away from the pit. And with each grave finished, Yelneid seems just a bit smaller. No one seems to notice this as the work continues.

Willow pauses for a moment as she surveys the graves of the children, just as something on the ground catches her eye. She picks it up and turns it in her hands - it is pitch black, with silver stitching over one face to resemble the outline of an eye. She recognises it immediately, for it used to be her eyepatch. She binds it back onto her face with a little sigh, while Yelneid watches intently.

"Don't tell me that's yours."

"Yes, it was - is. Why?"

"Huh! There were a couple of fools who happened upon me a day and a half before your arrival - they were so eager and confident that they tried to get the jump on me before I could even guide them to the cabin. I won't lie - those are my favourite ones to kill. Something about their sense of invincibility melting away into extreme vulnerability before they expire. It's horrible, but it always satisfies me. Anyways, they had it. The rest of your stuff must be with theirs, near the edge of the pit. Sorry, seems like I inadvertently claimed your revenge for you."

Willow gently smooths out the creases of her eyepatch while slowly shaking her head.

"No. Don't be. What's done is done. I will bury the rest."

"Wait, you're going to bury even them? Everyone?"

"I can't make markers for people you can't recall anything about or even care for, but they will be returned to the earth as properly as they may, aye."

Yelneid resists the urge to snap. Lunatic. Why stop her journey and endanger herself for such an errand? But if the Soulless really did raze her village, then perhaps much the same work waits for her there. So, that sort of makes sense. But, even for those who would have left her for dead?

"Willow?"

"Yes?"

"How is it that you are not consumed by rage?"

The question is, perhaps, the first thing to make Willow take a serious pause from when she first started working. She gazes to the full moon briefly, then looks to Yelneid.

"Rage is what consumes the soul when its sadness has become too great to carry. Seems I haven't hit my limit yet."

And just like that, her shovel carves through the earth anew. Dozens of more questions race through Yelneid's thoughts, though none are quite right to ask. Is it really that simple? Really just so? Shaking her head and wishing them away, she opts for another course.

"I will go back, and then return with fresh tea and plums."

"I will look forward to it, but I will not rest until then."

Seemingly satisfied, the krokani departs to leave the elfen with the task at hand. The remaining work is grueling, and forces Willow to work with the more recent bodies. With patience and methodic calculation, she manages to excavate enough dirt out from around the lowest bones to make them settle deeper. Finding her old tools makes life a little easier in kind. The sun has just started to peek over the horizon by the time she finishes. Naught but a shallow indentation of the pit remains, with a large wooden placard planted in the centre and carved with bold script that can easily be read from a distance:

Warning - Please Do Not Disturb - Warning
Lost Souls Who Angered The Mountain Spirits

For a moment, Willow is confused when she spots a child approaching from the distance, but the robes are still recognisable, and her bounty of tea and plums only confirms her suspicions. Yelneid does not catch on to the situation until she stands before Willow.

"Wait, when did you get so tall?"

"Have you been busy with your own thoughts, Yelneid? Look at your own hands and feet. They'll tell you."

The krokani girl's big indigo eye slowly blinks as she stares at her hands, before looking over herself more closely. Willow gently plucks the tea from her before guzzling it down with a satisfied sigh - the heat seeming to not phase her in the slightest as she exhales a plume of steam into the crisp, early morning air. Yelneid looks bashful as she nudges her feet together.

"Is this... am I being exorcised?"

"No idea. I think, if I had to guess, that you are starting to accept yourself more. I bet you look more like what you used to be now, rather than... what you desired to, perhaps? If that makes sense?"

"Oh. So you don't think I will fade away?"

"Again, I do not know. But there are many restless spirits out there - if you are not satisfied and continue to yearn for something more, I am certain you will persist."

As Willow reaches for the plums, Yelneid pulls them away with a frown.

"Look at your own hands now, you mad mule! And we've no good place to wash them. Just... just sit, then. I can feed you."

Willow chuckles pleasantly as she obliges the krokani girl's request, and settles down to sit and survey her work. As Yelneid breaks away pieces of plum and offers them to the elfen directly, she reflects on the scene in kind.

"I think you are right. Even if I felt this all was necessary at first, I've always felt vile. For what I've done, and what I've become. You had to bury the children first, before I could accept the entirety of your intentions. If you refused to bury your robbers, I might have had something to hold against you in my mind, but... no, you didn't. And somehow, I never thought to bury the children myself. Why was that? I've had lots of things to think about recently - even though I am typically alone with my thoughts so often already. Actually, maybe that was my problem. Hmm. Do you really think it is fair to bring mountain spirits into this, though? I have always been the Fang of Crazen before."

Willow gulps down another mouthful before forcing Yelneid to pause with the feeding.

"People will respect the wrath of the spirits, generally. Not so sure about Crazen."

Yelneid grimaces and sticks her tongue out at the elfen before the latter grins and adds:

"I'm sure they'll understand."

"... yeah. Willow, do you think there's still something I can do? I haven't done much besides sever heads for years, but I think I want to try."

Willow looks Yelneid over with an appraising eye before nodding.

"I think I have an idea."

Page 7

206 A.R.G. (or 206 years After the Rise of the Goloth)

"Eh, come again lad? I don't think I heard you right."

"I said my name is Erk!"

The krokani shopkeep erupts into thunderous laughter with this confirmation.

"You're not pulling my leg, are you lad? Did your mother have the hiccups when you were born?"

The elfen man sighs in resignation, burying his face within an open palm.

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard that one a million times. Some of my friends think I was meant to be Erik and the recorder just got it wrong. But nevermind that! I am indeed Erk."

Still unable to wipe the stupid grin from his face, the shopkeep nods in agreement before making a sweeping gesture to the world outside his walls.

"Well, Erk! Now that you've got your supplies and you're fixing to go to the Caracks from here, I might lend you an extra bit of advice - free of charge! You'll want to go clear around that mountain right over there - yes, that one. That's the Cursed Mountain."

"Oh, what makes it cursed?"

"The Fang of Crazen roams there - famed rogue Goloth that slays anyone it sees. Steals your eyes and pikes your head and eats the rest, it does. Terrible monster. And that's not even the half of it! It's got this animated corpse it uses like a puppet - some old elfen hag all covered in scars and nappy hair and a silver eye. Lures children to be eaten on the mount, it does. Best for you to stay way, my friend."

"What, really? Why hasn't it been investigated properly if there's corpses getting up and wondering in broad daylight?"

"Well, not during the day, no. The elfen's only been seen at night - comes with an old lantern to lead them away."

"Lead them? So it's not like kidnapping then?"

The krokani shopkeep is getting visibly more annoyed with these questions, when he rather clearly was just offering a sound and conscientious warning to a traveler.

"Well, most of the kids are rightly scared and frightened. But the runts and the bullied kids, the orphans, they seem to get lured in. I don't know what promises that ol' corpse might be luring them in with, but it surely predates on the weak and vulnerable. Frightful stuff."

It seems to Erk that if children would rather follow a walking corpse than stick around at home, then that's more indicative of deeper familial problems, but he determines to still his tongue on this matter. He has a sneaking suspicion that, for whatever reason, the shopkeep might take that personally. He also has to wonder if the shopkeep has ever even seen this supposed elfen corpse.

"Right. I'll be sure to steer clear of the cursed mountain."

"Capital! You have yourself a lovely afternoon now, lad! Don't stay on the trails too late into the night!"

Erk rubs his eyes as he emerges back out into the sunlight. Last item on his agenda was to find the guide that the bartender recommended. He figured it wouldn't be too hard to find him - a taurian youth in the cusp of adulthood, covered in furs and pelts from the forest. And among so many cityfolk, it was indeed easy to spot an obvious wild man. The two spot each other and move through the crowded streets with ease.

"Greetings, good fellow! By the spark in your eye, you must be Erk. Laslo told me about you."

"Yes, yes, then that must make you Kigore?"

The taurian offers a rowdy snort in answer, bellowing with assertion and several eager nods of the head - which makes it difficult for him to maintain eye contact when he towers so much taller than the elfen. No matter, though! Knowing that such a robust fellow is also reliable is a huge relief - Erk already feels like his journey will be much safer. They begin to discuss their course as they make their way out of town.

"So, first, we'll want to carve a path between Mount Borton and Mount Yelneid. There are other paths that entirely circumvent this range, but they'll take many extra days, and this way should be relatively flat so long as we don't stray from the canyon pathways."

"Ah, right. Which ones are Mount Borton and Mount Yelneid?"

Kilgore eagerly points them out with a giant knobby finger, his bovine face seeming to glow with pride and fondness as he does so.

"Erm. That Mount Yelneid - isn't that the Cursed Mountain?"

The taurian slowly blinks at the elfen, his muzzle pursing thoughtfully as he appears to be picking his words carefully.

"The cityfolk call it that, sure. Mount Yelneid is my name for the mountain - others like me, who roam the wilderness, might also use that name."

"Sounds like too pretty a name for a cursed place."

"Ho! Easy for you to say that from afar. But all Nature is dangerous, curses or not. Tread carefully, treat your surroundings with respect, and they'll generally return the favour. Mount Yelneid is no different in that regard - just demands a bit more than the others might."

This explanation elicits a hearty chuckle from Erk.

"Well, I'm sure glad you think so! I thought the story was a bit overdone and ridiculous myself - the Goloths don't operate like that. But if it's to keep stupid people from going up around there, that makes plenty of sense."

"Still a dangerous place, though. We'll be cutting through low enough that you shouldn't see any piked heads."

"Wait, that part is real?"

"Yes - if you start seeing them, it usually is a good indication you've gone too far up."

"What about the children?"

The taurian remains silent for a few long moments, his enthusiasm dampened by deep thought.

"The only children you'd see around there would be ones who were like me - wild children. It's not a short foot trek from the cities, so it's more a matter of necessity. A city child would need to be really desperate to want to go there, if at all."

Erk studies the taurian's expression carefully, uncertain of whether pressing the conversation further is prudent.

"You've been on the Mount your fair share, then?"

"Oh, certainly. Can get very dark and windy, especially in winter - but early spring might be at its most gorgeous up there. Especially if you enjoy plums."

"Ha! Sorry to tell you, but I'm more of a peach man. I suppose I won't be convinced of any cursed detours."

This seems to brighten the taurian's mood, who laughs jovially along with the chuckling elfen.

"Right, of course! Avoiding detours would certainly be peachy keen."

At that, the laughter erupts anew.

~FIN