Andir set out that evening in search of a monster.
He had learned, as all children must, that adults are capricious with the truth.
His parents seemed to believe that Andir's age precluded any serious
disclosure of why the world worked as it did. His persistent questions were most
often met with a sigh and a tired "because." If he caught them in a
particularly dark mood, they would answer his question with a wry story invented
on the spot and see how long it took Andir to get the joke. For the bulk of his
ten years, Andir had believed his father's tale of the uncharacteristically
kind Ghôl who delivered presents to obedient children on winter's
longest night. Their jokes grew increasingly bitter as the boy grew older; his
parents were simple people who believed that an active mind led to nothing but
laziness. Far better to bring honor to the King through hard work.
Over the years Andir began to wonder how much of what he knew was true. Age was
not a guarantee of wisdom, honesty or kindness. If adults could lie or joke about
some things, what was to stop them from lying about the rest? So many things he
took for granted might be half-truths, or even preposterous fantasies. A
precocious child in many respects, Andir found this notion depressing.
He considered what he knew - or thought he knew - of recent history. Some of the
people in his village were veterans of the Great War, and the rest spoke of it
so often one might be forgiven for thinking it had ended sixty days ago rather
than sixty years. In light of Andir's developing skepticism, many of the
tales told about the war seemed suspect. Hordes of reanimated dead defeated by
small, ragged groups of mercenaries and volunteers? A severed head that spoke,
lies slipping through its lips to an audience that would soon be dead? Alric,
then simply a wizard of immense power and not a King, plotting and fighting
against the walking dead without so much as a scratch on his chin from
Balor's rotting armies? Balor himself, with a legion of creatures bound to
him through sorcery and intimidation, unable to stop Alric from lopping off his
head? And Soulblighter - the towering, mad thing who cut off his own face and
tore out his own heart as part of a ritual too dark to speak of?
None of it seemed especially believable, although the adults still spoke of
Soulblighter in hushed tones; according to the stories, no one had ever
discovered what became of him. Andir was now inclined to dismiss this as
superstition, but chose to reserve judgment until he could learn more about the
war. So he set his sights on a goal closer to home: learning the truth about the
caves in the forest near his village.
The forest was full of dead trees which had a habit of falling over and killing
things. Knowing this, his mother told stories of a terrifying blur of claws and
fangs that lurked in caves and fed on young boys.
Andir suspected the story was false and planned to disprove it by examining the
caves; he felt certain that he would find them as harmless and empty as his
parents' words of caution. Armed with this knowledge, he might return home
and convince his parents that he was mature enough to learn the truth about the
world, and to have his questions treated with respect. If they must tell him
stories, he wanted only to hear true stories. And stories of monsters
He slipped quietly from his family's cottage late one evening, darting
between houses and trees, trying not to be seen by other villagers who might
order him back home. Once he cleared the village he had a straight run across a
jade plain that ended about a mile from the edge of the forest. He could no
longer see the sun, but enough light penetrated the tightly-clustered tree trunks
to keep him moving.
He picked his way carefully between trees in the forest. It seemed that every
other trunk was whitened and papery; one fell over when he leaned on it to catch
his breath. Andir remembered stories of the Fallen Lord Shiver killing any tree
she brushed as she and her army marched toward Madrigal. Again he wondered how
true that tale was.
He ripped large strips of bark off the living trees to mark his passage and kept
moving towards the heart of the forest. By the time he found the first cave,
night had crept up behind him, obliterating even the silhouettes of the trees.
Steeling himself, he stepped inside and shuffled forward.
The cave was damp with a roof that sloped gently downward to its end. After ten
feet he had to bend down; after twenty he had to sit down. He smiled. If there
were any beasts in the cave, they were so small as to be harmless - even to a
child. Andir knew that his mother had concocted a story to keep him out of
harm's way; he could understand and appreciate her concern but also felt
certain that his mother was jumping at shadows. He had learned the truth and it
had not hurt him.
Andir crawled out into the night air and began walking back home. He could not
seem to find the last tree he had marked. He stumbled through brush and over
thick roots for perhaps thirty minutes before he saw the crow.
Although in perfect darkness, the black bird somehow stood out. Its feathers were
a glistening, oily black that seemed to pulse with some inner turbulence. The
bird seemed to look past him rather than at him. Curious, Andir stepped toward
The bird hopped away. Andir followed. He tripped on a root and fell against a
fallen willow branch. The noise he made must have drowned out the rustle of
another bird's wings, for when he picked himself up there were two crows
before him. Both stared directly at him. Their eyes moved with the same sinuous,
smoky motion as their feathers.
Andir understood that these were no ordinary birds, but had a sudden urge to go
home and wait until daylight before returning to study them. He stepped
backwards, eyes on the two crows. They remained motionless. He turned around,
intending to go back to the clearing he'd passed about twenty feet back and
choose another path. He stopped.
Andir stood within a group of crows arranged in a perfect circle.
He felt sweat run down the side of his face. The crows took baby-steps forward,
closing in almost imperceptibly. Andir squatted low and ran his hand over the
ground, trying to find a fallen branch with which to shoo them away. A crow
pecked at his hand and he swung his arm aloft in self-defense. Andir felt an ugly
numbness spill down from his upraised arm into the rest of his body, and then his
muscles gave way and he fell to the floor of the forest. Andir felt as though all
the skin on his body was crumbling like paper consumed by fire.
Andir saw a tall man, smiling so hard it almost seemed as though he had no lips.
There was a grotesque scar running down his bare chest. Andir knew his name from
the stories, and might have said it aloud had his tongue still worked.
And ... something else, behind him. Something nameless for a thousand years.
Andir's final insight was that all stories contained little truths. Larger
truths, like that of the scarred presence towering over him, could never be
adequately conveyed in a tale.
He blinked and the monster was gone. And the crows were on him.
He might have eventually seen the ceiling of the night dissolve into daylight and
the crows rise in a solid black mass towards the blue sky, hovering like a
malevolent angel with far too many wings.
Except his eyes were long gone by that point.
The other things, creatures Andir had no name for, dashed through the countryside
for the first time in centuries, toward a village alive with the sounds of
roosters and two parents wondering where their child had gone off to at such an
Andir had learned, as all children eventually must, that there was a little
hideous truth in every monster story. And the horde that followed the crows knew
that the best stories deserve a second telling.
The Story Thus Far
It's now over 100 years since Balor first appeared at the eastern edge of the
civilized lands. His arrival was heralded by a great comet that grew in the sky
and signaled doom to all life. With dark arts he raised up the Fallen Lords,
sorcerer-generals like himself, bent to his will and desiring nothing but to lay
waste to the living and rule over the blasted lands. Among their number were
Shiver, the Deceiver, the Watcher and, most vicious and cunning of all,
Leading a grim army of beasts, spirit creatures and the reanimated dead, the
Fallen swept through Eastern villages and cities, destroying the great capital at
Muirthemne and scattering the survivors. They passed the great continental rang
of the Cloudspine and flooded into the rich lands of the West. Only two of the
great cities of the West still stood when our armies rallied.
Pursuing a plan of retaking strategic points and exploiting the weaknesses of the
Fallen, Alric, last of the Nine protectors of the West, led a strike through the
Fallen lines and directly for Balor himself. In a desperate gamble, Alric tricked
Balor into exposing himself and cut off his head. Eluding Soulblighter, he
brought it to the Great Devoid, a vast pit in the heart of the world, and threw
it in to seal Balor's fate.
Their leadership broken, most of the Fallen Lords were soon hunted down and
destroyed by Alric's armies. With Balor's destruction, Soulblighter
found himself defeated, but alive and free from Balor's service. He escaped
into the wilderness, to bide his time and look for an opportunity to return to
his former power, to achieve the ambition that was denied his master.
Now sixty years have passed since the end of the Great War against the Fallen.
Alric sits on the throne in the rebuilt city of Madrigal. Warriors have returned
to their villages, and allies like the fir'bolg to their homelands. Peace
reigns and the land prospers.
History proves there is always a lull before the storm....