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By Andrew StevensPublished about a year ago Updated 6 months ago 12 min read

Somewhere up in the Thousand Peaks of the Vale…

The night was dark, the woods quiet and still. Several hunters sat around a freshly stoked campfire as the smell of smoke filled the crisp, night air. The forest was silent except for the crackling of the wood as it began to slowly shed the last hour of its life, giving way to a bed of burning embers below.

Though the fire glowed hot, the men sitting around it still showed their breath in the cold dark. Up this high in the mountains, it was nearly always blistering cold. The hunters didn’t typically come up this far, but their hunt had seen little success, and they were in desperate need of more food to last through the cold winter months just beyond the horizon. Since they’d been out all day hunting and had only come across some small game–a couple rabbits and one exceptionally large rodent–they decided to make camp below the snowline before making the trek further up the mountain early tomorrow. The kills they had made would suffice to feed the three of them for the next day or so, but it was certainly not enough to bring back to the lodge for the local villages. They had hoped that they would find an elk or even a moose, but so far it had been eerily quiet.

As they sat around the fire, they laughed and told stories in between bites of warm meat, freshly cooked over the fire. They talked of the preceding day’s hunt and how odd it was that they hadn’t come across anything larger, noting even the typical mountain wolves were silent on this eerie night.

One of them, a middle-aged man named Kanir, sat up and looked at his comrades with a smirk. “Maybe the dragons have returned, and they are scaring away all the animals!”

“Hah, wouldn’t that be our luck! Maybe we will find this dragon and kill it. Then we can feed the villages for a whole year,” jested Yoghar, a large man with a deep voice and a dark brown beard who’s size almost made the other two hunters look like youth sitting next to him. He was muscled from head to toe, intricate tattoos adorning his exposed arms.

“You shouldn’t joke about such things. There used to be dragons in these hills, and if they were to return, we’d have much worse things to worry about than starving.” The third man, Jarren, was an older man in years than the other two, though his gray hair was just barely starting to show. He was thin and unkempt, an ever-present look of paranoia about his face that did not belie his true nature.

“Oh, lighten up you old spook. There haven’t been dragons in these hills in over a hundred years,” jeered Yoghar as he reached over and clapped the man on the back.

Given Yoghar’s size, and the small, gangly stature of Jarren, the jokingly pat on the back almost knocked Jarren off the log he was sitting on. He coughed, nearly choking on his meat. Kanir laughed, followed by Yoghar, which echoed through the shadowy trees around them, traveling up the side of the mountain, hitting some far-off surface before echoing back.

“It’s not just a myth, you know. There really were dragons in these parts. Rumor has it one of their nesting grounds was just up the mountain from us.”

“Jarren, all the dragons were killed in the Dragon Wars. There haven’t been any sighted since before we were even born. Don’t worry, old man. I think we’re safe here.” Kanir was younger than Jarren, but the clasp on his grey cloak indicated that he was a respected member of the Hunter’s Guild and the leader of the group currently present.

“No, all the dragons were not killed. My grandpa told me that many of them retreated deeper into the mountains. They could still come back one day.” Jarren’s tone was sharp, but there was an apparent manner of respect he showed the higher-ranking man.

“Oh, your grandpa told you that, eh?” Yoghar scoffed. “I bet he told you stories of witches and trolls as well, huh? I heard they lived in caves around these hills and came out to eat overly paranoid hunters who strayed too far up the mountain!”

With that, both Yoghar and Kanir laughed again, the sounds of their voices echoing through the mountains once more. Jarren, annoyed and slightly embarrassed, turned away from them and set about finishing his helping of meat. The other two laughed again as they watched their comrade’s discontent, though this time not quite so loud.

“Sorry mate, I’m only joking,” Yoghar said, his voice softening a little. “I’m sure we’re perfectly safe out here. Based on the quiet, I’d say it’s just the three of us here for miles.” He paused as he looked around at the shadows, then up at the night sky. “Anyways, I’ve got to piss.” Yoghar took the last bite of his meat, tossed the bone in the fire, and started walking off towards the darkness.

As Yoghar stepped just past the edge of the fire’s light, he stopped and pulled down his trousers to relieve himself. The woods were silent as he stared into the shadowy abyss, save for the sound of his fluids hitting the forest floor. As he finished, he grunted in satisfaction, yanking up his trousers. He started to turn to head back, but he thought he heard a slight ruffling sound coming from somewhere in the darkness. He stopped and listened momentarily. From the dark came a sound, like the cracking of a stick. Yoghar quickly fastened his belt as he peered into the night, straining his eyes for any sign of movement.

“Yoghar, you all good out there?” Kanir called out.

“I’m fine, just heard something out in the woods. Might be our luck has picked up. Bring my spear.”

Jarren turned and looked at Kanir, a curious look on his face. He grabbed his bow as he stood, while Kanir grabbed his and then picked up Yoghar’s spear. They headed over to the edge of the light to gaze into the darkness with their companion.

“What did you hear?” Jarren asked, quivering slightly, the talk of dragons still fresh in his mind.

“I don’t know, just some rustling somewhere out there. Sounded like it was maybe a hundred feet or so out that way,” Yoghar explained as he pointed up the mountainside. “Might be something larger because I heard a twig snap.”

All three peered into the night, but the dark was so thick up here in the mountains and the light of their fire drowned out so quickly, they saw nothing but black staring back at them.

Yoghar nudged Jarren as he joked, “Maybe it’s a dragon, eh?” Jarren merely responded with a glare.

After a few more moments of silence, convinced whatever it was had gone, the three turned back towards the fire.

You should put more weight in the words of your friend, a voice called from the darkness.

The three men spun, weapons at the ready. Yoghar was the first to speak, “Who’s there! Show yourself!”

No need to be alarmed. I just want to talk, the voice calmly replied. It was a woman’s voice, but unlike any the three men had ever heard. It was deep, yet still feminine in nature. And even though the circumstances of this encounter should have set the men off, the voice had an almost soothing nature to it.

Yoghar shook the invasive thoughts out of his head as he called out once more, “I said show yourself. This is your last chance. Otherwise, I’m coming out there swinging. And I can promise you, I rarely miss.”

Alright, no need to get violent. I will come into the light.

The three men peered into the darkness, weapons at the ready, not knowing who or what was about to come out of the shadows. They backed slowly towards the fire, away from the edge of the darkness, straining their eyes to look for any signs of movement amongst the void in front of them. There was a large rustle in the dark. After a few seconds, which seemed like ages, the men spotted a hint of movement. At first it was formless, seemingly taking on a shape of its own, a lighter shadow amongst a backdrop of shadows. But slowly, the form came into better focus as it neared the edge of the light.

Jarren, tightening his grip on his bow to the point of near pain, whispered to the others, “It’s a witch. I knew we weren’t alone out here.”

The others shot quick glances at him, this time much more serious in nature, before turning their eyes back toward the approaching stranger. After another moment, all three men watched as the form of a woman stepped fully into their circle of light.

The woman was tall – much taller than any woman they had ever seen. Yoghar was a big man by all accounts, but this woman must have been at least several inches taller than him. She wore a long, red tunic with a large hood that covered most of her features. Though her head was bent forward, and the cloak left shadows across her face, the men could tell that she was quite beautiful. A few strands of her bright red hair shown through the opening in her hood, intensified by the flickering flames casting light from the fire.

The men had never seen anything quite like her before. Though they felt entranced by her uniqueness, they also felt a cold chill run down their spines as they struggled to understand what exactly was going on. Who was this woman, and where had she come from? Was there any possibility that she was a witch, or some kind of sorceress? They felt conflicted. Though magic wielders were incredibly rare – just about as rare as dragons, it wasn’t out of the question. After the Great Dragon Wars were concluded, mages and sorcerers came from all over to investigate the remains of the dragons that had been slain. After all, dragon organs and other parts were highly sought after by the magical community. It was said that several mages had even fought alongside the people of the Vale during the war, which may have been the reason for the turning of the tides in humanity’s favor. However, no one of any significant magical prowess had been seen around the Western Vale since that time. It seemed odd that any would show up now, after so long. Yet here this woman was, and by the look of her, she was no mere commoner.

Again, Yoghar, being the bravest of the bunch, was the first to speak. “Who are you and what are you doing out here? Where did you come from? Remove your hood so we might have a better look at you.”

“My, my, so many questions. Quite bold of you,” the woman replied. There was something different in her voice now. It sounded somewhat more human than it had when it echoed out of the darkness. “You wish to know who I am and where I come from? Very well…”

The woman reached up toward her hood, pausing momentarily, then slowing her ascent as the men tightened their hold on their weapons and raised them slightly. She pulled her hood upwards higher on her head so they could see her face fully, revealing more of her long, wavy red hair. As she did so, she slowly raised her eyes towards the three hunters.

As her gaze met theirs, they felt another chill as her piercing red eyes seemed to see into their very souls. Glowing red eyes? Jarren thought he even saw a flash of light in her eyes; not from the fire, but almost as if it had come from within. He looked to the other two to see if they had seen it, but their gazes were still fixed firmly on her, entranced by her appearance. He swallowed and looked back at her, her eyes meeting his directly as he did. He felt cold, as if she was searching his mind for something. He felt confused; he felt fear, but he could not look away. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally let him go. He stumbled backwards, nearly falling over, before regaining his composure. Though Jarren did not know why, he knew what he had to do. He dropped his bow, turned on his heels, and began to run down the mountain.

Yoghar and Kanir snapped out of their own trances when Jarren’s bow hit the ground, just in time to see his form disappear into the darkness behind them. They kept their raised weapons pointed towards the stranger while calling to Jarren, but soon his footsteps echoed out of earshot.

Yoghar yelled at her, “What have you done to him? Are you some kind of sorceress? I have never seen anyone with eyes like yours…”

The woman’s ominous manner of arrival aside, her demeanor up to this point had been relatively non-hostile. But now, there was no denying her intentions. The men could see it in her cold, red eyes. They could see that she was no normal woman. They knew there was something more to her, though they still could not say exactly what it was.

“Sorceress? No,” she laughed, her voice returning to the otherworldly sound they’d heard before. “You humans have made some strides in the magical arts, but do not mistake me for some cheap conjurer of tricks. No. I am afraid, for your sake, that I am something much more.” The woman laughed, a deep, throaty laugh. Her eyes flickered, just as Jarren had seen before, but this time Yoghar and Kanir saw it clearly.

No longer having any reason to hold back, Kanir loosed the arrow he had notched and Yoghar lunged at her with his spear. Both weapons missed their target as the woman setpped easily aside, hastily receding into the darkness from which she’d come. Yoghar barreled into the night after her as Kanir readied another arrow. Kanir could hear Yoghar’s enraged grunts as he swung his spear, though it sounded like he was hitting nothing but air. There was a rustling, followed by more sounds from his companion, then a large thud. Kanir kept his bow aimed, frantically scanning for any signs of movement. But no more sounds came from the darkness, and only the crackling of the fire continued, though at this point it was mostly just glowing coals.

Kanir wanted to chase after Yoghar to make sure he was alright, but fear kept his feet firmly planted in the assumed safety of the fire’s dwindling light. He flicked his bow back and forth, looking for any signs of friend or foe, but still there was nothing.

Now do you believe the words of your friend–Jarren, was it? The voice from the darkness had returned.

Kanir felt as if his soul had left his body. Though terrified, he mustered up a response. “What did you do to him? Where’s Yoghar?”

Yoghar is here, with me. You don’t need to worry for him anymore. As for your other friend, I merely sent him on an errand.

“Yoghar, can you hear me? Are you alright?”

There was more rustling in the dark, then something landed across the fire from Kanir. For a moment, he couldn’t tell what it was, but as he strained his eyes in the now dim firelight, it came into focus. It was Yoghar’s arm! He could see the tattoos clearly.

Kanir felt a deep dread wash over him, understanding now the futility of the situation. This was it. This was his end. He eyed the fire, the dying embers symbolic of his own approaching fate. He mustered up the courage for one final question.

“Who are you?” Kanir asked as he stared into the dark, all hope gone from his body. From within the blackness of the night, a much larger shadow slowly loomed over him, blocking out the stars beyond.

I am she who has come from the shadows; she who has grown under a fireless sky. I am she who has come to deliver retribution and flame, fury and vengeance.

I am Sha’Nalaen – Queenmother, bringer of a new dawn!

And with a flash, the night was cold and dark yet again, the last embers of the hunter’s fire fading to the sound of wind and wings…


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