By Nathan Steen
Edited by Alicia Steen
Far from the western seas of Blue Soul and the bordering shores of Dark Moon, great mountains rise in eastern Jeshrun, separating the cities and strongholds from the frontier lands. The mountains are much more untamed and far more dangerous than the cultivated western lands.
Borders are never permanently fixed here as many of the darker clans of Jeshrun are always competing with the clans loyal to the Ancient of Days, desiring to expand territory and influence. Any traveler who wishes to pass through here must always be on their guard, lest he be caught unawares in an ambush laid by the dark clans.
In spite of the ever-present conflict, there is one place completely avoided by nearly all warring clans. Deep and high within these mountains lies a barren ice-filled wilderness nearly devoid of life. Between the fierce storms that rage and the almost impenetrable landscape, most clans find it easier to avoid the place altogether. All that is known if this desolate country is the name passed down since ancient times: the High Wilderness.
From a distance, all that can be seen of the High Wilderness is the clouds that continuously, or perhaps deliberately, block the mountain peaks from view. According to legend, those clouds hid many secrets left abandoned by the ancient clans of Jeshrun in the tallest peaks of all the land.
Some say these secrets are powerful weapons forged in dragon fire that have been sealed away until the Ancient of Days calls forth those who will wield them. Others say the secrets are the keys to mastering a great ancient magic left behind by the twelve Lords of old. Still others whisper that the secrets reveal a darker mystery behind the dark clans of Jeshrun that must never come to light.
Whatever the truth might be, all the legends agree on one detail: the High Wilderness is guarded by merciless guardians known as clan Twilight. More than the violent storms, they are the reason no one seeks the secrets hidden in the mountains. Even the naysayers who proclaim that clan Twilight either died out centuries ago or never existed, even they will not tread there for fear of them. Thus the High Wilderness remains desolate, and the secrets still a legend.
All this changed, however, the day the legends became real.
Ecalai stumbles and falls to one knee. He is breathing hard from continuous travel without rest. He cares little about that, though. Ignoring his fatigue, Ecalai picks himself up and continues moving forward. All he wants is just to get away – away from Dark Moon, away from Mykl, away from the Guide, and away from the torment of his failure. In this way he keeps wandering aimlessly as he ventures deeper and deeper into the mountains. Yes, here is where he would rather be. These mountains do not need protection, nor do they demand anything from him. Here there is only silence, cold, and ice… calm, quiet, and deadly ice.
Ecalai wants the silence the mountains have to offer more than anything else. Unfortunately, there is no place he could go nor anything he could do to silence the accusatory voices that plague his thoughts. One sounds like Mykl’s voice still repeating what he had said in Dark Moon, “Everything you have ever done has been for the sake of vengeance. You can no longer see the truth of what you have become.”
Another voice, this one belonging to the Guide, also rails against him, “What a pathetic fool you have become. Did I not warn you this would happen? You are nothing but a hopeless cause. You belong to the Shadow now.”
Ecalai tries to ignore all the voices. He does not wish to hear anything they have to say, but the voices only laugh at his attempts to silence them. Truthfully, Ecalai feels clearly that the voices are right. He tried to save Jeshrun from the Shadow, but he only made the situation worse He failed to kill even a single Nightbringer, and, in a crucial moment, he lost to Mykl. Now he has been forced to abandon Dark Moon as well as leave Erianna and Mykai behind to face the Shadow alone.
He had tried to be the hero, but everything had gone wrong. He has failed completely and utterly.
Suddenly, a new voice, this one not in his thoughts but coming from a person standing behind him, interrupts Ecalai. “It is dangerous to wander alone,” the person says. “These mountains are home to many things that you had best no meet unprepared.”
The voices of accusation immediately go silent. Startled, Ecalai looks behind him and sees a rather peculiar man standing there. He is one of the strangest looking men Ecalai has ever met. His clothes are of a manner Ecalai has never seen before, nor by looking can Ecalai tell where the man is from. He is well equipped for travel in these mountains, and from the look of things he comes here often.
“You appear to be lost. Perhaps I could be of some assistance to you,” the man continues.
“Thank you for the offer,” Ecalai responds, “but I am beyond what aid you may be able to give me.”
“Still,” says the man, “I cannot leave a poor soul like you to wander in these mountains alone. Come, where are you headed? I know these mountains well and can guide you anywhere you wish to go.”
“I do not have a destination. I guess you could say that I am a mere wanderer who has lost his purpose.”
“Would you like to discover your purpose?”
Ecalai is caught off guard by the direct question. “What do you mean? How would you show me my purpose?”
“You are not the first despairing soul to find your way here. Many others just like you have come to these mountains seeking help that they know not where to find. I come offering them help out of their desperate situation. I suppose you could say I am in the business of offering hope to those who have none. However, I can only give my help to those who want it. Tell me, would you like to discover your purpose?”
Ecalai is skeptical of this strange man and the help he offers. “What kind of ‘help’ are you intending to give me?”
“Well, for starters, you are going to freeze to death or worse if you continue to wander these mountains alone. Should you get lost you will find nothing but a most unfortunate death awaiting you. You will need my help if you wish to leave these mountains alive.
“Secondly, you mentioned that you have lost your purpose. That being the case, you will easily be swallowed by the shadow even if you do manage to find your way. If you come with me I may be able to help you with that.”
“That sounds almost too good to be true,” says Ecalai, still skeptical. “No one I have ever met would offer that kind of help for free. What do you want in return?”
“Well, if you insist on repaying me, then you can accompany me on a little errand of mine. Shadows have stirred up dark forces that are active even here in these secluded mountains. For the present, I have been charged with protecting these mountains by hunting down any dark forces that lurk here. An extra hand would always be welcome.”
Ecalai considers ignoring this stranger’s offer to help. It is true, though, that he does not know much about these mountains and that he could easily run into trouble if he were alone. He still does not know what to make of this man, but he is not in the situation or mood to care if the man ends up betraying him. “Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt,” Ecalai shrugs. “Where are we off to?”
“First we must head deeper into the mountains. I have a friend there that we must meet up with,” says the man as he points toward the higher mountain peaks.
“Fine,” Ecalai replies.
“You will be needing this.” The man tosses Ecalai a sheathed sword.
“What is this for?”
“I told you these mountains are dangerous. Seeing as you lack a sword of your own, you can borrow one of mine.”
“If you insist,” Ecalai shrugs again. “By the way, I almost forgot to ask you your name.”
The man smiles. “I have many names, but those who know me around here call me the Stranger.”