Arcanum

Stories from the Squatsretch System

Written by Gweldar The Elder.

Welcome folks, to the "ALL NEW" Arcanum section of the site. Here is the place to read occasional Worlds End short prose stories. Be careful folks, the technology within is indistinguishable from magik and be assured that at anytime a new scroll containing an illustration or a runic text could appear in a puff of smoke. Best you keep checking back then...and no mistake!!

- Gweldar.

Malkovych the merchant trader had travelled this route between the great city of Jn’Rygwy and the merchant kingdom of Noh M’Orell many times before. His familiarity with the roads and pathways between had a somewhat strange air about it on this particular day, however, as the sun shone high in the blue sky above.

The trade route lay at the foot of the Hills of Misfortune, an apt name on this occasion, and through a huge area of forest for thousands of leagues. The thick forest of incredibly tall trees lined both sides of the road and stretched far into the distance whence it seemed to disappear on the horizon. The landmass was nestled between The Flaming Sea to the North and The Sea of Storms to the South West and The Sea of Despair to the South East.

His journey from Jn’Rygwy, a huge sprawling municipality, well versed in the ways of commerce, would take him many weeks to travel to the mighty southern merchant kingdoms, from whence most of Gaeyrth’s goods were exchanged.

The small wooden cart trundled down the rough-hewn, dust-strewn stony path occasionally losing some small artefact or other, whilst at other times a more serious piece of the cart itself. He had bought the cart nearly twenty years ago and had spent scant monies since to keep it road worthy. That said, he thought to himself, it had served him well and after all why try to fix that which is not broken.

Almost with that thought still in his head one of the wheels cracked and fell off the axle, causing the little wagon to first list and then teeter before finally toppling over the edge of the roadway and down the ravine to his left and the forest floor far below.

The merchant raised himself up on his elbows from beneath a plethora of packed, and in some cases priceless paraphernalia. It was almost dark and as he rubbed his blood-caked brow guessed that he must have been caught on the way down and knocked unconscious.

He squinted and spied the rest of the cart smashed into a myriad of pieces, before kneeling and then rising painfully to his feet. Looking around he realised he was never going to fix it and almost certainly would be unable to take very much along with him for the remainder of the journey. The creature that had been his steed had disappeared, obviously cut free of it’s bridle and harness during the crash. It had cost him a pretty penny and had now decided it had earned it’s freedom, leaving him alone on the road without a ride.

Sitting on an oversized boulder upon which the main body of the cart had so obviously smashed he pondered on his next move. The only real course of action was to hide the artefacts and wreckage in the undergrowth whilst placing some kind of marker nearby. Not too close as to attract the wrong kind of attention should anyone else venture by chance into the vicinity and thus espying that someone had gone over the edge above. Yet, close enough for him to return and retrieve it all as soon as he could possible do so.

At length, his struggles with the main and most heavy pieces of the wreckage over and everything hidden from view he decided to use the forest floor for cover rather than chance the open road above. Whomsoever came by would no doubt ascertain immediately that somewhere back a ways there was likely some stashed loot, if indeed he continued his journey along the road.

By the time he was finished the sun had long since slipped from sight and it was now complete darkness there on the forest floor, so he decided to nestle down for the night. With a few hours sleep inside him he would make his first tentative moves on the morrow. And with that, he pulled his cloak around his shoulders and fell into a fitful sleep.

The morning sounds of chirping birds and the slithering of a small lizard’s tail across his face, as it flitted fleetingly over him, awoke him with a gentle start. His sleep had been interrupted by the eerie sounds of the nighttime forest and vague memories of the crash with perhaps a little added concussion for good measure but now his first thought of the day was the dreaded walk that lay ahead.  This thought was closely followed by another - the pangs of the hunger he now felt.

He took out some oatcakes and a bottle of Plum Beer, a sweet, fruity, Beer similar to Mead but quite unlike Quaff, which is very strong and certainly not one for the faint hearted. After all he had a long trek ahead of him and needed all his wits about him now. Being a man of the cities he was quite unaccustomed to living in the wilds like this.

As he ate his breakfast his thoughts drifted once more. Perhaps he would chance upon an encampment of fellow merchants where he could either purchase a new cart, or perhaps obtain passage to the nearest of the merchant towns, or even back to the city of Jn’Rygwy. Either were good prospects and preferable to the long slog before him at this very moment.

At length, he finished his none too hearty repast and deciding to change from his fineries to somewhat more conservative attire to be in keeping with the look of the outdoors lifestyle he set off through the thickets of dense tree-lined forest towards his fate and his journey’s end. He was armed only with a walking staff and a map of the merchant kingdoms and he carried as much food and drink as his bedding backpack would allow. Most of his provisions had been scattered to the four winds in the crash and most of what was left lay upon the ground amongst the muck and mire of the soft forest flooring.

He had been travelling for about six hours, stopping only occasionally to rest, when he came upon a smell in the air. It was tea – hot steaming tea. He licked his lips. He had found someone else. He would make his way to whence the aroma emanated and would do so with the utmost caution, so as to not fall captive to the wrong sorts. Precautions had not been taken to avoid the thieves, ragamuffins and bandits that haunt these parts only to fall into their midst now.

As he got nearer to the camp he realised there were no sounds coming his way only a deathly silence, which became more apparent the nearer he approached. The only way he knew others were near was the smell of the tea brewing over a hot fire. The silence was eerie and total.  The only thing he could hear was the sound of his breathing and those noises he made as he furtively pushed his way through the brush.

By and by he reached a clearing and the camp. It was deserted. Maybe they had heard him, as he made his way through the dense brambles and even now were waiting for him to make his move into the clearing upon which, once there, they would then pounce upon him.

He lay still in the brushwood listening to his own breathing whilst all the while listening for other sounds and keenly searching through the bracken and trees for any sign of life, especially of the intelligent kind. That said, however, one would question the intelligence of anyone hanging around this place through choice, or maybe that thought was just his fear showing though.

Eventually his impatience and intrigue got the better of him and he moved out from his hiding place and forwards toward the empty campsite. Using all the stealth a well-fed merchant could ever hope to muster he crashed through the thick foliage. If anyone was hereabouts they doubtless knew of him and his whereabouts by now.

Despite all of this noise, however, he soon realised he was alone, totally and utterly alone. The only sign of life, other than his own presence, being the bubbling, boiling, and by now almost dry, large pot of tea hanging over the campfire on its slim steel support poles. It had obviously been that way for a while now, perhaps half an hour or so as it was now beginning to stick to the bottom of the pot in a solid messy lump.

Where had everyone gone he wondered? Alone and unarmed he was almost surely at the mercies of whoever had chanced by this encampment. It was now late afternoon and soon the sun would set. As it disappeared behind the horizons once more and darkness was upon him again perhaps he wondered if he should have perhaps been safer and less ill met by travelling on the road above the forest?  

A choice then; the happenstance of a meeting with brigands, or seeing whoever or whatever passed though these parts causing the sudden disappearance of the occupants of the camp? Hardly a choice at all, but one, which he needed to decide upon and with the swiftness of a Berevian Falcon, else the same creature chanced this time upon him.

His stomach got the better of him. After all he would hardly get far on an empty stomach and he had scarce touched a morsel since breakfast, save the few tidbits here and there as he traversed the almost nonexistent forest trail. It was settled then he would make camp here for the night. He would make fast the perimeter – he had often heard the soldiers talk in this way as they accompanied the merchant caravans along the trade routes, although he had scant knowledge about how to go about that exactly.

Next he would reset the fire about the tent, which he would re-place with the rock side at his back. That way he was only bothered about an attack from the forward approach and above of course.

It was early dusk by the time he had made the rearrangements to the layout of the encampment. He had placed a length of string around the outer perimeter of the tents and on it a line of metal knives, forks and spoons in such a way that they acted like chimes in the early evening air. If anyone or indeed anything decided to pay a visit to the site he would know about it - hopefully early enough to fight back or run – the more likely of the two options.

New tea sat in the pot steaming over the fire and a nice roast leg was perched on a spit across a larger fire along with a pot of simmering vegetables. The smell was incredible he thought, although any odour of food would have been like nectar to his nostrils, he was so hungry.

Along the perimeter of the camp he had also located a few strategically placed large thick branches, which he had buried in the ground as far as he could, carving the topmost parts to sharp points and positioning them so they faced outward from the tents. There weren’t many, but anything coming this way would get a nasty shock if they tried to get past them quickly.

He felt as safe and comfortable as he could under the circumstances and began to put out his meal. Once finished, he began to feel incredibly tired and decided to retire to bed, although he would remain fully clothed – just in case anyone or anything did indeed chance to pass by during the night.

He was not awake for much longer after he laid his head on the pillow inside his newly acquired canvas domicile. The fire, which he had built up before going to sleep, roared for most of the night. He had added more logs and branches and stoked it hoping it would ward off any potential adversary.

He awoke at length, but this time the chirping of the birds was absent replaced in their stead by the hollow hush. The sun, however, cascaded in through the crack of the tent door telling him that it was indeed dawn. Yes, it was dawn and he was still safe. He had decided the previous night that he would make his way a little further down though the forest and then head back up to the road above. He would risk the brigands rather than whatever lay somewhere out there.

Now, however, as he stood outside the shelter amidst the belongings of the camp dwellers in the cold light of day he wondered if in fact they actually belonged to hunters – hunters, who may not take too kindly to him helping himself to their provisions and their bed and indeed their entire encampment. Although in his merchant’s mind it was merely a small peccadillo and something about which he could ponder the penology of at a later date.

Thus he decided to eat breakfast quickly and then set off once more, before they arrived back from their kill, if this was the case. They may have the bloodlust still and he thought it prudent to make haste and leave the site as soon as possible.

He wolfed down the remainder of the roasted meat and vegetables from the previous evening. Mopping up the gravy with a thick piece of crusty bread. Then downed a further bottle of plum beer and when, with his bag packed with some newly acquired provisions, replacing the ones he had lost in the crash, a large knife, which was almost like a short sword and a short handled ax he made his way back into the forest once more and away from the camp, he did so with a feverish fervour and gusto to his stride.

He felt quite refreshed and was beginning to see some enjoyment from his present predicament, although he longed for the comforts of home. He was a civilised man and civilised men were not used to the hardships afforded by the wild outdoors. He was more used to the pomp and particulars of the wealthy lifestyle that was his lot. That said, however, he continued as best he could in the garb of a none-too-wealthy traveller, deciding the accoutrements of a wealthy merchant too much of a temptation for other less than scrupulous travellers.

He looked ahead most the time as he pushed his way through the thick forestry, stopping occasionally to use the short knife or ax to chop a path through the dense foliage, All the while he glanced this way and that, especially back the way he had come, just in case he was being watched or worse still followed.

He need not have bothered, however, as it was soon midday and with the sun high above his head he was now feeling a little lighter in mood and had continued through the woodland preferring to stay amongst the thickets, rather than chance his perceived meeting with brigands.

The forest had a smell all of its own, one he had never noticed before now. He had not really spent too much time amongst woodlands like this, except in his childhood, when he recollected having played out amongst the trees in a small coppice near to his parent’s home back in Jn’Rygwy. Nothing like the expanse in which he now found himself travelling though.

His stout body, whilst not really built for such drudgery, was bearing up under the strain of the situation. Although he simply had no choice in the matter and realised he just had to persevere and get on with it without this continued mental persiflage. His concentration was needed to forge onwards without hiccup. That way he could return to retrieve his belongings as soon as possible. He much preferred the term stout to acknowledge his more rotund girth. It needs be said though that he was the very figure of heroic proportions when compared with many of his contemporaries.

Looking at the map again for a moment he reckoned he was nearer to H’rry Snkrepp than to Jn’Rygwy and so he would continue to head south east until he reached the crossroads at El Cydor, where the river Tiborr splits in twain and where he would take then the southern road to H’rry Snkrepp famous for its confectioneries. This merchant town produced and supplied almost the entire surface of Gaeyrth with its baked produce. He reckoned that by the time he reached it, he would be scarce ten percent the man he was whence he started the journey and would therefore consume the entire city’s contents of such delicacies in order to gain his stature once more.

As he continued on his way he noticed the eerie soundlessness, which had permeated the area around the encampment, had persisted. It was without explanation, there should have been the sounds of birds and other forest animals, but there was only the pervading quiet. There was scant time for such contemplation, however, as he found himself facing a deep ravine in front of him that fell way from the forest floor upon which he stood into a wide expanse of woodland and which for all the world looked as though it had sunk into the depths below.

He turned to look towards the road above him someway to the right of his position, but it was too steep a precipice for him to climb and traversing around the deep valley in front of him would mean adding more time to his journey and would also mean heading deeper into the forest and away from the trade route, if he should need to return to it. This was something he certainly wished to avoid with a vengeance. It was inevitable he would go down and travel across the forest floor far below. So far down was it that the tree tops lay below him, stretching out for several miles before rising once more on the other side of the ravine.

It was such a large expanse of land that it appeared to have its very own lake, or at least that was what it appeared like to the merchant as he peered down into its dark depths and saw the shimmering of reflected light like that, which one sees when on a boat or ship. He hoped it didn’t cover the entire surface of the gorge, because he would not be able to cross in a boat as none existed here, or at least he doubted so, and he certainly could not swim the distance.

He scrambled down the natural escarpment to the ground below. Rocks and clumps of earth fell from beneath his feet. He was just happy to see that it was not steeper than it actually was. Otherwise his less than sturdy, lumbering gaits added to his corpulent girth may have been his downfall. He part slid, part fell, and part clambered his limbs all akimbo as he made his decidedly dangerous and dodgy descent.

It was likened to his cart crashing two days pervious at least in feeling. He was fast becoming bruised and cut as he descended. He could only hope he could get to the bottom somewhat unscathed, if a little battered. He was becoming more and more accustomed to the fact he was living in the outdoors and having to survive whatever Mother Nature decided to throw at him. At length, however, he reached the bottom – full of dust, covered in bruises and cuts and yet quite content in his successfully negotiating the steep and slippery, rock strewn slope.

He looked around him, there was still no sign or sound of life around him and his only companion in this otherworldly place was the stillness of the air. Still the stoically, stony silence permeated the atmosphere with its unnatural aura of didactic doom-laden menace. He checked on the map again. There was no sign of this area on it and the sooner he was back out of it all the better.

It would almost be worth leaving his wares back there in the confines of his concealed ditch. Almost, but he couldn’t allow himself to think like that. No self respecting merchant would ever contemplate such ideology. He brushed himself down and then once more began to traverse the brushwood of the forest floor and headed towards the lake some way ahead in the distance.

Even the sunlight found it hard to penetrate in through the dense branches above his head. Its diffused beams of light made it appear to be more like early evening than mid afternoon. The ground was even softer down here and in places quite boggy. He would have to be careful not to step unwarily into a quagmire here. No one would ever hear his calls for help if he should do so and that thought alone brought all the hairs on his body bristling.

Away through the trees, he could see the occasional glint of mirrored light as it reflected off the surface of the water ahead. Well, he thought, at least he could refill his water bottles there. It was thirsty, as well as starved, work all this walking and with the vast distance to travel he would need to replenish his supplies often.

He looked again at the map, estimating it would take several weeks to fully traverse the leagues between the remoteness of the landscape and his eventual journey’s end. On and on he trudged his steps becoming more and more awkward as the bogginess of the ground became apparent to a greater extent the further on he travelled.

Then suddenly he smelt something in the air. Damp and decidedly dank. There was also the stench of sulphur too, clinging clammily to the wetness of the region. He wondered what it was even as something underfoot caused him to trip forward and land in a squishy mess, face down in the mire of the forest floor.

He clambered to his feet once more and saw to his horror what it was that had caused his fall – it was the remains of a human arm, sticking up from the soft ground like a bleached branch. He had thought to see a tree root, or some dangling vine, but not the skeletal remains of some other unfortunate traveller.

He made his way forwards again, this time more carefully than before. And along with the noiselessness the stench of sulphur mixed with the dampness and something else, which he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but which permeated the entire eerie landscape. Long before the sun began setting in the world above it was already starting to become decidedly dark in this underworld.

That was exactly how to explain this place. It felt entirely not right, unnervingly so. If he had been asked at that very moment, Malkovych the merchant trader would have said it was malevolent. Even the awful perfume about the place felt evil. He would continue to walk all night until he had fully crossed the valley and climbed back out at the other side. Then there was no mistaking he would return to the road above and continue his perambulations in the heat and light of the sun braving the potential of brigands all the while, rather than chance his luck further in the unequivocal, unerring, unsurety of this frightful forest.

There was a new sickeningly awful malodour now too, which added itself to the fray. It was the foetors of death. In the now near darkness he could discern, if barely, the remains of several human bodies in the midst of different stages of decomposition. It was like a open grave yard. Surely so many could not venture this way and find the same fate, unless some other darker forces were at work.

As he furtively crossed the area he saw that what had appeared to be a lake was in fact a tar pit. That had been the undecided other smell he had sensed a ways back. Had the unfortunate fellows herein been laid low by the fumes, causing them to stumble into the thick mire, unable to escape their entrapment or even having their shouts for help heard by any except the unhearing trees? Whatever, the outcome seemed to be the same fate for all entering into the place.

He refused to allow himself to think he too would share that misfortune and resolutely resigned himself to getting out of there and quick. He would not end his days in this abominable place. He strode at a pace across the increasingly boggy landscape, all the while concerned to perceive any obstacles to his flight in the near darkness. Even the light from the moon, N’roll, was ineffective enough to penetrate down through the canopy of branches above to the ground underfoot with little more than a faint glow of half-light.

His breath was becoming more laboured due to a combination of the stench now almost overpowering in its intensity and his exertions. And then it happened. There was a large roar and awful glooping sound like a ladle being pulled from oil – only this sound was far worse.

He could also hear something, nay someone chanting across the way. It was guttural and quite incomprehensible to his ears, but it was human, or at least almost human.

Then, he saw in the half-light what looked like a man dressed in sorcerous regalia. It was he that was performing the chant but in a language he had never heard before and as a merchant he had heard most. About the sorcerer the tar pit began to pulse and bubble sending huge droplets of tar into the air to drop with a sickening splat on the forest floor. He could barely make any of this out, which added to the creepiness of the situation.  

“Who goes?” called the merchant in as commanding a tone as he could muster. His voice may have been strong, but his body was faltering as it began to shiver with outright fear at the vision being created before his very eyes.

Stopping his chanting the sorcerer spoke in a croaking tone, “Khemis Treesett is my title and I hold sway twixt the surface world and that beneath and so has it been for over a thousand years. My power is leagued with the land. Thus as the land feeds on human flesh, so too does my body feed on the power of the land. Your life as all the others is forfeit and thus this discourse is ended.”

Those were the only words uttered by the sorcerer and they gave scant time to think in terms of escape in the meantime for the merchant, who for the first time on this journey really felt fearfully out of place.

From out of the tar pit rose such an abomination that his breath and heart stopped for an instant. Then, his wits about him once more, he sought some kind of shelter – any kind in fact.

The monster rose like a leviathan from the dark depths of the tar pit and seemed to indeed be a part of it. The tar pulsed and undulated as it held its form, whilst the rest of the pit bubbled and spat great dollops of tar high into the air in a continuous manner.

It edged towards him, not on legs but it moved none the less. Its fetid maw spat more tar as it roared with an obscene guttural muttering in a voice not meant to be heard, at least not by mortal man.

As the merchant leapt to any safe confines he could find in the darkness heading towards the far side of the pit he continued on his way through the ravine, as though there was nothing out of the extraordinary here. Despite his weighty disposition the creature wailed its objections to this annoying gnat almost in its grasp, yet always just beyond and barely out of reach.

Never had the merchant had to move in such a manner and never did he hope would he have to again. He thanked whatever gods were smiling down on him at that moment in time as he pranced with the grace of a wounded, four ton Eruldrium for his decision to wear the raiment more akin to those of a traveller rather than his own merchant’s regalia.

He could feel the hot tar bearing down on his neck, constantly reaching to grab him and take his life from him. He knew that to turn around could prove his undoing and it was all he could do to keep from tripping again on the human remains, which littered the timberland. He just kept on running in his utterly ridiculous gait, which was a cross between a flounce and a waddle with a little limp, hobble and lurch thrown in for good measure. A new-born Rooffle had more grace than the merchant showed on that particular evening. 

Then it came to him; a torch, he should make a torch from rags tied to a branch. It was obvious to him now; flames should deal with the tar pit and thus the monster within. It was a chance at least and one he had to make good, if he was to succeed.

With that thought still in his head he leapt as best he could, crashing into the nearby densely packed trees and hoping it would be enough to give him the time to create a makeshift torch of sorts. His move had the required effect as the tar monster was made to split into many smaller parts as it splintered amongst the gaps between the tree trunks.

It took moments to tear up his shirt and wrap in tightly around a thick branch, which lay on the ground amongst others. He had first picked up a thigh bone, but dropped it, gagging as he did so. He took out a taper and his flints. Then he began hitting one against the other creating a spark and thus lighting the small taper. Adjacent to his left hand side a large puddle of tar pulsated as it tried to rejoin its parent form. Outside the thicket the monster reformed and rose high above the tree tops ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

Then, dipping the cloth wrapped branch into the tar puddle and having the tar wrap itself aggressively around the torn shirt he rose and turned back towards the creature. In the background the sorcerer still chanted in that awful, croaky, sickeningly guttural way. Malkovych leapt from the tree line and held the torch above his head waving it at the creature, goading it to come nearer to him.

The ruse worked and it lurched forward, whilst the merchant lit the torch. Then, throwing it headlong into the tar pit, now somewhat behind the monster he dived behind a rock for shelter anticipating the events of the next few moments.

The moment the torch hit the tar pit the flames spread alarmingly fast, especially so for the monster and sorcerer, who was standing too near to the pit, still chanting, when it ignited. The monster roared its defiance amidst its pain and with the sorcerer’s screams echoing around the area the creature erupted in a furious explosion sending huge conflagrations of hot, molten tar high into the air and plumes of black acrid smoke even higher.

Back on his feet and running as if all the Hounds of Elldra were chasing him Malkovych headed as fast as his overweight body would allow past the huge inferno that had been the tar pit, hoping to outrun the now falling tar as it returned from the heights to which it had been flung.

All around the merchant the tar hit the forest floor, the trees and the thickets, causing small fires everywhere and yet miraculously he remained unscathed by it all. By the time he stopped running he was at the other end of the ravine. It was the early hours of day just before sunrise and he climbed the opposite natural escarpment out of the forested canyon, which now burnt with a fury so intense that even a few miles distant he could feel the heat on his back.

Eventually and not without problems the large merchant stood once more on the opposite side of the forest floor above the ravine. Some way up ahead he could see a climbable path to the trade road above. Still sweating from the ordeal he made his way towards it as the first light of dawn began to seep into the forest. This was something no one would ever believe and if he was ever fortunate enough to have children it would be something, which although becoming legendary to them, would only ever be a very tall tale to others.

Once back on the rough hewn, rocky road this thought did not even bother him. All he worried about now was the immense length of time it would take to get to the city beyond. He started walking and by midday he heard a sound in the distance behind him. He could not believe his luck. It was another merchant; in fact it was many other merchants. It was in fact one of the famous merchant caravans consisting of about fifty such merchants, accompanied by an armed escort of mounted knights.

Flagging a lift he was given passage to his choice of merchant cities beyond the horizon, as several of the merchants were going to most of those too. In about a couple of weeks they should make the crossroads and by then he would decide if it was indeed to be H’rry Snkrepp or not, as the case may be.

Whatever he decided he would return to his hidden wares within a couple of months and from there, after this last few days and especially the last night’s events, everything else would pale into insignificance and thankfully so…

COMING SOON - Another short prose story from the many chronicles of Gaeyrth - from the pen of Tim Perkins...

Worlds End by Tim Perkins of Wizards Keep presents The Arcanum: A collection of short prose stories from the world of Gaeyrth - Homeworld of Worlds End.