The town was called Lost Horn, and the tavern The Sleepy Fiddler’s Inn. It was a spacious, but dark place with small windows that barely let in any daylight, and instead, the room was lit by several candles plopped unceremoniously onto the tables and tucked into alcoves on the walls. The single, wide chamber crowded with merchants, farmers, travelers, and drunkards taking their late meals and daily rations of ale in a generally loud and boisterous manner, but Viridiane didn’t mind it. The noise helped to take the edge off her depressing thoughts.
She sat at a wooden table in the corner alone, nursing a large mug of hot apple cider. A parchment lay in front of her, and she was clutching an ink pen, but the letter she intended to send her father back to Enley was not writing itself no matter how hard she glared at her own hand.
Her plan to go right back home was hard to abandon, but after what had happened in the forest, she needed time to think and to understand. And she needed information.
When she’d finally gathered herself, she’d left the destroyed elven city behind as fast as she could. It might have been useful to investigate and find some more clues as to what had happened there, but the memory of that sickly grey light that had ensnared her and the oppressive atmosphere of the ruins had been too much. She’d had to leave. Maybe she could tell the people of Enley what she’d found, perhaps could come back with a party to take another look. If her father allowed her to tag along.
Well, he would never, but she couldn’t bear to stay anyway. So, she’d turned her back to the charred, devastated buildings and started back towards her hometown with the grey crystal safely tucked away in her pocket. She’d pondered whether it was dangerous to keep it on herself, but apart from reminding her of the revolting curtain of light and how it had grabbed onto her like a predator its prey, that little piece of otherworldly light inside the stone made her feel safe as well, somehow.
It was bizarre, but she couldn’t leave it behind. And either way, it was proof. Although, of what, she didn’t know yet.
She must have been walking much slower than the previous day, lost in her thoughts of what her father and the people would say when she returned from her big escape after only two days, because she hadn’t even reached the sparser parts of the woods when darkness had descended onto the world around. This time, she’d been less inclined to continue the journey at night than before. She’d warmed herself at a small fire, then reluctantly stomped the flames out, because she didn’t want to become a snack for some nocturnal monster that had glimpsed her light either. She’d eaten some of her provisions, then waited with sword in hand for exhaustion to take her to the land of dreams, hoping the night would pass uneventfully.
Then the wolf had found her.
The cool brush of wind brought its growl before Viridiane had seen the animal itself, and the sound had rung out from so close that she hadn’t even bothered to run. She’d stood, pulse quickening, fingers clutching at the hilt of the sword. She’d spun around to locate the creature. The beast had emerged from the cover of the thick thicket, sneaking towards her with bared teeth, a frightening snarl escaping its throat. A large, grey dire wolf, seemingly in its lonesome, but unfortunately, hungry.
She had encountered a beast like this before, but never alone. And she’d had to admit that she’d never been a big fighter. But right then, she’d had to become one, somehow.
She’d just resolved to make her first move—better her than the wolf—when a strange sensation had filled her. The sudden resonance of a string, a tiny alarm bell somewhere deep inside her. A warning as if to say, “Look at me. Remember? I am here.”
Almost unconsciously, she’d reached for the grey crystal in her pocket and pulled it out, its light cold and sharp as she’d raised it in front of her. The wolf had stopped, fixing its eyes on the new player in the game. Viridiane couldn’t look away either. Something had started forming in the middle of her chest, a twin feeling to the cool sensation in her palm. It was waiting for her to set it free.
She’d breathed in, slowly, and dropped the crystal to the ground. Arm outstretched, she’d taken a step towards the wolf. And breathed out.
A thin thread of light had formed in the middle of her palm and like smoke, swirled forth in the direction of the wolf. The animal whimpered softly as the ghostly mist formed itself in the image of a skeletal hand and shot out, grabbing onto its fur tightly. Viridiane gasped. The wolf had howled in pain, whirling around, trying to shake the apparition.
Viridiane had used the wolf’s confusion to move forward, swinging down with her sword, catching the beast on its side. It had tried to bite her, sharp teeth clattering together inches away from her forearm, but she’d jumped back and blocked the next attack with her weapon. There was another pang inside her, and a new wave of chilling grey mist pushed its way out of her chest and into her arm. It clawed into the wolf’s front thigh with bony fingers right where she had sliced it with her blade before. The animal had become frantic, snapping at the ghost arm in visible pain, while Viridiane, feeling strangely calm and focused, lowered herself into a defensive position. A smell of decay hit her nose; an old, bitter stench, like wet mold on the inner walls of a crypt forgotten by time. The wolf had started to back away, whining in anguish, then it had spun around and run into the night, never to be seen again.
Viridiane let her arm fall beside her, powerless. The crystal’s light flashed into her eyes from between the dark tufts of grass, and nausea had overwhelmed her body.
She’d just performed magic. And what an awful kind of magic too!
Standing there for a while, confused and terrified, she’d kept freezing in place every time she’d heard a noise too loud. Her mind had kept running through the motions of the fight again and again, recalling the ominous feeling inside her when the magic spell had taken form, sensing again as the skeletal hand absorbed the life force of the wolf while she watched, uncomprehending and stupefied.
By the end, she’d known only one thing. There was no way she could go back home in this state.
That damned thing in the elven ruins had given her something…no, cursed her with something monstrous that she didn’t understand. How could she go home? She could hurt someone! She’d been studying to be a healer of the people, for hells’ sake, not to slaughter wolves with unholy death spells!
After what had seemed like hours of despondence and lamenting, she’d finally made the decision. She’d picked up the cursed crystal and her bag and turned towards the west, away from Enley.
By the next afternoon, she’d arrived at Lost Horn, a crossroads town at the confluence of old forests and wide planes, where the King’s Road crossed the land from the border with Thasal in the south to eventually cresting the high mountains of North Ostia. The town was situated on the bank of the same river as Enley, called Arborray. Lost Horn wasn’t as large a city as for example Hollowhold close to the border, where Jarven had used to take Viridiane to buy supplies and ingredients for the shop, but it seemed lively enough. Without any better ideas, she’d holed up in the first tavern she’d found to write her letter of explanations and to figure out where to start searching for answers.
Libraries or guard posts might have information about the City in the Forest, and historians and magic-users should know something about what sort of awful magic was taking hold of her. So…she should visit some schools, perhaps. She’d heard about the wizard academy in the capital, Starhand, far in the north, but she had no idea how to get there—sadly, Jarven’s maps were not that extensive. She had some money that she’d been gathering for her escape for a while, but was she really ready to start traveling on her own? Viridiane had been living in the same place all her life, only leaving it when it had been absolutely necessary. It was frankly pathetic how little she knew about the world.
What if she got lost? What if she ran out of money and could never return home? She missed her father and Enley already. And her mother—she would never meet her and get to know her. How could she hope to find her? What would become of her if she tried?
It wasn’t too late to turn around and go home. Forget about all this. Pretend it hadn’t happened and try to be a good daughter and a hard-working apprentice again.
She stared at her hand holding the pen again, then her gaze wandered to the grey crystal, now caged inside a loose spiral of wires, fashioned from a scrap cord that she’d found on a blacksmith’s yard, attached to a leather string, and hung around her neck. It felt good to have it there, and that itself was somewhat terrifying. The question was burning inside her: could she even trust herself after what she had done to that wolf? She had magic now, and she had no idea what it was capable of.
The door of the inn suddenly slammed open, interrupting her ruminations. A tall man stumbled into the room, a sheen of sweat on his tan brow, a glint of panic in his eyes. He looked around, trying to make eye contact with whoever he could, then cried out.
“Somebody, please! My daughter…the goblins took my daughter!”
A sudden quiet filled the tavern as the noise of conversation died down, and everyone stared at the newcomer. No one moved for a long second.
Viridiane took a deep breath, her muscles tightening. Her fingertips started to tingle, and the crystal in her neck gleamed brightly.