The Caravan of Hope
Damon trudged through the wet snow...and what an odd sight he made! His cleanly shaved head was red from the cold, as was the portions of his face showing around his dark black mustache and goatee. His dark wide-set eyes refected the white all around him and shone like well-polished silver. His left arm was strapped firmly to his side with black straps that blended in with the black leather of his armor. The black heavy cloak he wore was not too heavy for the blustering wind, and blew wildly out to the side of him. He was alone again, and on the trail to Greenmark.
The adventuring party he had recently adventured with had been interesting enough. A man with tiger-stripes tattood on his body...a short dwarf that seemed ready to have a break-down at any moment...a high and mighty cleric who always seemed to have the answers...a brave knight from the Empire...several elves from the Forest of the Ancients...and a cleric who seemed more interested in gathering knowledge than in swinging the weapon at his side. They had struggled to capture a Kobold-relic from a town overrun with Gnolls...and in the end, the willing sacrifice of a tiny kobold turned the tide of battle...and crushed the invading Gnolls.
Damon was glad to be done with the quest and get back on his own. How strange some of them had seemed! But almost as soon as he had parted ways, he began to miss the company of others. The constant chatter, the conversations they had about their dreams and goals, the arguments they had about which way to go...and what was for dinner. Even the mad muttering of Oren was something worth missing! Damon smiled. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself the luxury of having friends.
When they had parted ways, Damon told his new companions that he had some personal business that was pressing, and that he would meet them in Greenmark as soon as he could. Here it was the 20th day of Primex, and he had been delayed longer than he had expected. How long should it take to check on an old widow, and fulfill a promise from his youth?
Years before, when Damon was a teen, he had made the acquaintence of a thief in the City of Cornwalsh that hailed from the Azure Kingdom. The thief's name was Howlett, and he had saved Damon's life. When just a few months later Howlett lay in Damon's arms bleeding to death, a city guardman's arrow in his spine...Damon had promised to take enough money to Howlett's family to allow them to live comfortably. It seems that Howlett had left behind a wife and three kids in order to steal his fortune in the large City of Cornwalsh.
Damon's eyes narrowed as he walked the trail. It was true that as the life left Howlett's eyes, and Damon promised to help his family...Damon was lying. He owed Howlett, but not enough to support the man's family. He owed him just enough for a polite lie to be told as the last words that Howlett heard. And Damon paid his debt with an easy lie. "Howlett...I swear to you, friend. I will find your family...I will give them piles of ill-gotten gold, and I will make sure they live long and well. Rest easy friend." And then Howlett died.
That easy lie had been a lifetime ago, and Damon had lost his own family in the intervening years. Howlett had begun to haunt Damon...not Howlett's ghost, but the memory of Howlett. The look in his eyes as he died, the look of satisfaction that his wife and children would be provided for...that look. Damon would find himself in his dreams and daydreams...looking once more in his friends tear-filled eyes. And he could hear his own youthful voice, "...I swear to you friend...." Both Damon's time sleeping and waking had begun to suffer under the burden of that easy lie, and he found it to be easy no more.
So it was that Damon resolved to fulfill that empty promise, and repay Howlett his debt of life.
The Widow's Cabin
Damon had traveled for several days after leaving the party at the kobold lair. A life of toil and tragedy had prepared him for the pain and suffering of traveling in such a cruel cold climate, and through strength of will and body he had made the journey easily. Howlett had spoke often of his family's home, in which his father, and his father's father had lived. It sat in the once fertile Valley of Fern, between the Crest of Tadesh and the somewhat hawk-shaped Raptor Mountain. Howlett would spend hours looking at crude sketches of his home and tracing the path home on a small sweat-stained map of the Azure Kingdom.
It was this very map that led Damon to the correct valley. Standing on an icy ledge, he looked down into the sheltered valley and saw the snow-covered roof of the home and barns that housed all everything that Howlett had every truly treasured in this world. Damon reached down and jingled his pouch with his hand. A treasure of coins to buy peace of mind, and relief from his long guilt at failing his friend. Soon Howlett's memory could rest in Damon's mind.
The climb down using one arm would have been difficult for anyone else, but Damon had long ago adjusted to having a useless left arm. He reached the valley floor within minutes, and began walking towards the house. Damon began to worry. No smoke was coming from the chimneys of the home, and there were no footprints of comings and goings from the home. The barns appeared empty, and Damon did not hear the sounds of animals...or of people.
Damon reached the door and stopped cold in his tracks. It was nailed shut from the outside...and the windows were all shuttered closed. Damon ripped at the boards with his right hand, and the fell to pieces...rotten from time and the elements. He pulled the door open, and stared into the dark gaping hole of the doorway. Only the sound of the wind and the blowing snow accompanied Damon. They were gone.
He stepped through the doorway, brushing aside cobwebs, and walked to the center of the large front sitting room. The fireplace was cold and unused, the shelves empty, and the furniture was covered in dust...or was it frost. Damon went from room to room, looking for any signs of life, or some clue as to where Howlett's family had gone. Though it was bitterly cold, Damon's forehead was covered in beads of sweat, and he had a desperate look in his eye. He walked from the last room, back into the large front room. Snow was piling up in a pile just inside the still open front door. Damons chin dropped to his chest and he closed his eyes. He would never find them now.
Damon reached down to his belt and pulled his heavy coin purse free. He untied it with his teeth and peered into its dark opening at the glittering of coins and gems within. "I'm sorry, Howlett. I lied to you...and your family is gone." Damon swung his one good arm in a wide arc, and platinum and gold, emerald and ruby showered the floor at Damon's feet.
Damon's dark form cast a shadow across the frosty room as he crossed the door's threshhold, and then the door closed and coins and gems ceased their glittering.
Travellers on the Road
Damon touched his emply coin purse and continued step-after-step on the road to Greenmark. In the nights since visiting the empty Howlett home Damon had slept peacefully. His friend was at rest in his mind. As Damon walked, he leaned against the freezing wind hitting him from the southwest. Winter was over on the calendar, but winter ruled the land year-round. Ahead, through the blowing snow, Damon could see figures on the trail ahead...travelling towards him. He reached down and made sure his sword slid easily in its scabbard and continued forward.
His feeling of unease went away when the travelers came better into view. It was a caravan of all sorts of people, bundled from the cold. They appeared to have everything they owned packed up on carts, mules, and horses...and they were clearly in good spirits. The man at the front of the caravan walked as though he wore armor beneath his heavy wrappings, but Damon discounted him as a threat when he saw the man's right arm was heavily bandaged and slung across his chest. The man in front called out to Damon as they approached. "Hail, fellow traveller! Well met!"
Damon realized his black attire, armor, and weapondry made him look like a potential threat...and he did not wish to frighten these heavily burdened travellers. He smiled and called back to their leader, "Well met! Though we share this trail, we do not share destinations. Where are you going with all these people?"
The leader looked relieved at Damon's friendly greeting. "Fifty braves souls are these...men, women, and children. We come from Greenmark...and our destination's the Azure Keep. We're starting over from stratch...building a new Kingdom."
Damon was amused by the enthusiasm being displayed by this wounded soldier. "What news from Greenmark, friend?"
The man stared a Damon for a moment, a look of shock on his face. "Have you not heard? Greenmark is no more...burned to the ground by a necromancer's ghost and his army of undead men and giants. We mean to rebuild the City by the Lake at the foot of the Azure Mountain. Fifty brave souls we are, but hundreds of survivers of Greenmark will follow...and some day thousands will follow...tens of thousands...."
Damon stumbled with his words. "Burned...to the ground? Necromancer? Gorin Zachian! What of this necromancer...was he captured...where is he?"
The leader seemed a bit taken aback by Damon's interest in the necromancer. "The Finders of the Key said it was Gorin's ghost, and that it dematerialized as they attacked it. What of it friend?"
Damon was staring off into the snow-crusted trees, rubbing his motionless left arm with his right hand. "I owe that necromancer some pain." Damon seemed to gather his thoughts and offered his right hand to the leader of the caravan, "I'm Damon Kraddock, once a guardsman in Cornwalsh...now I travel mostly. What is your name?"
The man offered out his left hand, awkwardly gripping Damon's gloved hand. "Major Feld, Sir. A guardsman of Greenmark...now a leader of men. With our sweat and blood we will forge a new city upon the ruins of the old. What was once called the City by the Lake, and in ancient times the City of Sapphire...we will christen, the 'City of Hope.' Join us friend...travel our way on this road. Build what was once old, and shall now be new. What say you?"
Damon looked deep into Feld's eyes. He saw his reflection in those bright eyes...he saw his shaved head, his dark beard, and his gaunt features. He saw in those eyes the bodies of his family burned and twisted in the smoking ruins of his home in Cornwalsh. He saw in those eyes a younger version of himself bound to a table in Gorin Zachian's basement. He saw in those eyes the eyes of every man he'd ever had to kill. "No, Feld. My future does not lie in a City of Hope. I wish you well...but I must get to Greenmark. I have...uh...friends there I need to check on. I have a ghost to catch...."
Damon stepped aside and let the caravan pass him by on the trail. The faces of the people and their belonging were smudged with soot, but their eyes were bright. They had a city to build, and Kingdom to re-establish.
Damon was just a few hours outside of Greenmark. The winter wind continued to whip at his frame, and the snow had soaked his boots. He considered what he would see when he reached Greenmark. Black skeletons of buildings, smoking ruins, piles of undead bodies...and the bodies of the recently living. Gorin Zachian's legacy to the world...more death at his hands.
It was a tense time in the remains of the Azure Kingdom. War with the giants was impending...cities were burning...political struggles were brewing just over the horizon. In a way, Damon was happy he would soon be back with the other adventurers. There was some comfort in knowing that he could share goals with others, and work together for some common ends. It had been a long time since he had felt this way, but he was getting used to the idea of binding his fate with these others of his ilk.
Damon stopped walking, his eyes wide and fearful. The wind had died away to nothing. The biting cold had suddenly faded, and the warmth of the sun above was actually warming his face and the top of his head. "WHAT WITCHERY IS THIS!" Damon drew forth his black sword and readied himself for whatever attack this sudden change in the weather was signalling. "COME OUT FROM THE TREES AND TEST MY BLADE!" Damon stood in the relative warmth for several moments, awaiting his possible doom...but nothing more happened.
He sheathed his sword and stared hard at the sky above and the sun, which seemed prominent in the sky. He could hear the drip of melting snow and ice all around him. First he just smiled as he spun around in his tracks...but then laughter rung out from him into the surrounding woods. "Winter is at an end...the Storm Gates have been closed!" He took a few steps in the direction of Greenmark...and then lengthened his strides, breaking into a run. "THE STORM GATES ARE CLOSED!"
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