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The people of Targris milled about the streets, searching for family and friends and retrieving possessions cast into flooded gutters. Most of the fires had been quenched by the heavy rain, but the damage had been done, leaving several structures blackened and shrouded in steamy mist. No one neared the scene of the terrible battle or looked too long at the warrior. Quinsareth slumbered for some time, having passed out on the porch of the late mayor's home.

Curious children had crept closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stranger. Seeing his half-closed eyes, with their thin slivers of milky white showing beneath fluttering lids, they ran away. Rumors of the "demon warrior" ran wild among the youngsters and were only partly dismissed by their parents and fearful older siblings. After Mahgra's fall, Quinsareth had crawled to the steps of the house and attempted to dress his wounds with strips of cloth from his cloak and massage strained muscles. He'd been alert, certain that at any moment, his field of vision would liquefy and waver, showing him the distant shadows calling him elsewhere. He'd sat for some time, pretending that no one else existed, hoping that any thankful souls would leave him in peace. After a time, he saw that few were bold enough to even look in his direction. The weather had improved in that time, leaving only the rain to patter loudly on the roof of the wooden porch. The shadows never came and the sound of the rain lulled him into a long-overdue slumber. His dreams, when he had them, were nearly the same. Always he stood on the edge of a great cliff, overlooking a lush valley growing wild with greenery, flowers, and massive trees. The air was charged with energy and creation. He would run all day, looking for a way down into that strange, dreaming home. He had never reached that faraway land. Many times, he had considered jumping from the cliff, but silent hunters would appear at the edges of the forest below with bright blades in hand. Fey creatures regarded him curiously-lithe bodies sheathed in radiant armor, dark stares colored in shades of threat.

They gave him pause as they watched him with pearly white eyes, so like his own. The porch roof leaked, and before long, fat drops of water splashed into his upturned face, waking him from forbidden dreamscapes. He spat water from his mouth and wiped it from his eyes, flinching as his back complained at the sudden movement. His entire body ached as he rose to sit on the top step, rubbing his left shoulder gingerly beneath his armor. He had often slept on the ground without removing his armor, and it seemed so natural to him that he felt strange when afforded the opportunity to sleep in a real bed.

Judging by the lack of onlookers, no offer would be forthcoming any time soon. He looked at the people in the distance picking up their lives and casting off those bits destroyed or befouled. He shook his head, but could not feel the surprise he supposed he should feel at still being there. The call of shadow had not come, would not come until his work was complete. Much as he wished it, the ogre mage was not powerful enough to have been the source of what he'd seen-or not seen-in Logfell. Something else held him here, though somewhere deep inside, he questioned his own motives. He could easily leave on his own. He had no covenant with Hoar, merely a vague understanding, a meeting of the god's purpose and Quin's lack of direction. Somewhere deep inside, in those places that dreamed of the verdant land he could not reach, there was a sense of shame. Much as he knew he could travel any road, only the shadowed one led him to the kill, to injustice and to blood. He struggled to stand, but something on the porch caught his attention. A basket, laden with what food could be gathered, and a skin of wine were placed near to where he'd been sleeping. He looked around, but no one was near. Through the rain he saw a middle-aged man, standing just outside the charred remains of the small temple razed by the gnolls, who looked in Quin's direction. His face was expressionless, and he leaned on an oak staff. He nodded to Quin, acknowledging him. Quin, unsure, nodded back, taken off guard by the man's steady stare. Quinsareth turned away, back to the food. He picked at it slowly at first, then allowed his hunger to take over.

Dried fish wrapped in broad leaves, some stale bread and pieces of fruit, all of this he devoured, then washed it down with the salty-sweet berry wine. He spared most of the wine and used the leaves to collect drops of the falling rain, quenching his thirst without clouding his mind. He stood slowly, favoring his left side and carefully stretching his tender back. The ogre's lightning had burned a scar down his spine and the skin felt seared as if from a hot skillet. His tunic and armor chafed against the wound like sack cloth.

He would need the shadow road's healing touch soon. It looked as if Targris's temple was empty, or its clerics had burned along with it.

So where would he go? This region was unknown to him. Where might he look to find those behind Logfell's and Targris's attacks? He looked toward the old man, who still studied the ruins of the temple and the charred remains of its gardens. Steeling himself and checking his equipment, patting the scabbard of the sleeping Bedlam, he descended the steps and made his way to introduce himself. Dreading interaction with someone who did not threaten his life, Quinsareth made sure to walk loudly through the puddles to avoid startling the man. An unnecessary concern, as the man was obviously aware of him. Absently, he rubbed at the patches of dried blood on his face and lamented the loss of his traveling hat, most likely washed away in the flood along the side of the road. He dipped his head low, allowing thick strands of wet hair to obscure his unnerving eyes. The man saw Quinsareth coming near and didn't move aside or turn away. Quin sighed and cursed himself for not carrying at least one map. The burnt smell of the temple was strong but tempered with the scent of rain on the cool air.

Quin stood awkwardly, staring into the broken windows and the steaming blackness within. The old man regarded him for a few moments and turned back to the burned temple, as if sensing the aasimar's troubled demeanor. A low-hanging branch from within the temple's garden shielded them both from the worst of the downpour. "You fought well."

The man's voice was low and emotionless, but it startled Quinsareth all the same. "It was what it was, little more." Not fond of compliments, he could not help the edge in his reply. "As you say, stranger." The old man turned to the aasimar. "This attack was wild and unexpected-perhaps its end deserved to be so as well. You are injured?" "I will heal," he said, adjusting his left arm behind his cloak. "See to your own, elder. I must be leaving soon." "Fair enough.

Where will you go? You'll find naught but plague near the forest, and Derlusk is shut up tight for fear of it." Plague. He'd sensed the familiar smell of it in Logfell, but hadn't placed it. There was indeed something else beyond ogres and gnolls at work. He doubted this was any ordinary plague. "Where else does the forest run? South, to more towns?" "Aye, south, where you'll find Littlewater, most likely as tight as Derlusk. Beyond that is Brookhollow, the city of the oracles and the Hidden Circle. This ruin was one of theirs, but it has been months since their last visit." Quin studied the temple, still not comfortable meeting the elder's gaze. Beyond the burned wood and stone, he could feel the presence of the forest. South it would be.

Whatever held him in this region would be close to that forest. "You should leave this place, lest the rest of it fall to some strange foe as well." "Perhaps, but we will stay. We will rebuild. It is the wisdom of the Qurth that keeps us going, along with our faith in the oracles." "Where are your oracles now-where were they today?" Quin asked, snapping the question out before he could stop himself. This man's faith was none of his affair, despite his misgivings. The elder thought a moment, then answered, "I honestly do not know. It is not my place to question the oracles, but Savras always provides despite hardship and danger. You came to us, and I no longer believe in coincidence." This time, Quin did bite back his reply, angered by the complacency in the man's tone. He had seen towns destroyed for lack of help or preparedness. He simply motioned to the temple and the people in the distance, some crying, some dead in the street, and said, "I did not come soon enough." "Sometimes it takes flame and death to awaken that which has lain dormant for too long. Occasionally, the destruction of that which we hold dear brings us closer to what we really are. I do not mourn a burned temple or momentary pain-I see opportunity. You came when it was necessary and no sooner." Quinsareth turned to face the elder, ignoring his pain to stand straighter and brush the hair from his eyes. Dried blood still stained his fair skin, and his gaze of milky pearl settled on the old man. The elder met the stare, but he could not suppress a brief shudder. A few people nearby glanced at him but quickly regretted their boldness, scurrying away from Quin's menacing visage. He focused on the chill again, the ice in his blood, calling the shadows to open his path, directing it south toward Littlewater. He did not know exactly where he went, but the shadows would carry him true, knowing the roads he did not. The old man backed away, obeying the fear Quin carried about him. The puddles near Quin turned black as did the rain which fell upon his head and shoulders. The aura of a darker world haloed his body. Quinsareth spoke before turning to disappear in the shadowalk, shaking his head slightly and reaching a hesitant, though oddly troubling, conclusion.

"I am not like you." In a flash of distant lightning, he was gone.

CHAPTER EIGHT | Bloodwalk | *****