Dremnin went quickly back to the spot he had chosen for himself and Hannah, and as he arrived he set the shield down against the wall of the cave behind them. “Told you I’d be back, little one”, he said to Hannah as she looked up at him. “Have you had a chance to wash up and get ready to rest?” He looked at the child sitting there and he smiled as he took a seat, then said, “This is the first chance since our escape from the mines that we can sit and not worry about pursuit, so I wanted to get to know you better, Hannah. Can you tell me about yourself?”
Hannah smiled apologetically while she stared at some indistinct point on a wall across the cave, her grubby arms around her even grubbier knees. “I didn’t think about it, Father.” She paused before finding words. “What’s to tell?” She cocked her head as she looked over to survey him.
“My life began when you rescued me.” Her expression was not quite affection – more like adoration salted with an unhealthy dose of that certain vacancy that only a career (or cradle) slave can assume.
Dremnin nodded, understanding how anyone in slavery feels. He, at least, knew the taste of freedom; she was born into that life and would have a most incredible awakening when the time came. “Well, first of all we need to get you cleaned up as the first real step in being free, little one.” Dremnin sought out and asked one of the local folk where they bathe, so that he and Hannah might go there to clean up. “What made you jump into the whirlpool back in cave without telling me?”, he asked her as he washed her. “If I hadn’t jumped in to find you, you’d be floating somewhere in that cave of water without life in you.”
“I had no life until you breathed it back into me in the temple, Father,” she admitted. She paused, perhaps searching for words. Dremnin remained quiet, letting her find them. “…why I walked down that hall into the beast’s mouth… why the child-demons didn’t attack me… I don’t know.” Dremnin didn’t fully believe her, but he didn’t press.
Dremnin was struck by the child’s statement, and immediately felt a closer bond that seemed to be growing between them. “Do you have any memories at all of your life growing up, little one?”, he asked Hannah as they entered the pool and he tried to wash the grime from her arms. “Anything before Augra passed away in the mines?,” the scout asked his small charge hopefully as they bathed.
Hannah stood compliantly in the cavern pool while Dremnin washed her face and tried to detangle her hair. Though he couldn’t see her face, he felt her body shudder convulsively. Though cool, the water was not cold enough to cause it. A memory?
“Why are you shivering, Hannah?”, he asked as he washed the grime from her little body.
Finally she spoke again, and Dremnin could hear the anguish in her tone. “The children feared me… or what’s inside me.” She turned to face him, and he could see such terror in her eyes. “Father, I don’t think I’m alone.” Her face screwed up in pain and she began to weep silently.
Her pain and anguish broke Dremnin’s heart, and he took her into his strong arms. “Who feared you, little one?”, he asked and held her close to him to help give her a feeling of love and security. “I don’t fear you, sweetheart”, he said, and meant it, He tried to give her support as he held her. “I want to understand, Hannah. What makes you say you’re not alone?”
“Those little monsters in the cave…” She sobbed violently into Dremnin’s tunic. “It was like they knew I was worse than them…” She pulled away so she could look up into Dremnin’s eyes. “Father, I have the most awful dreams. The things I do in them…” She looked down, as though she couldn’t bear to meet his gaze. “For all that I’ve seen and done, for all that’s been done to me, none of it compares to these dreams.” Hannah’s sobbing subsided into little sighing gasps.
The scout carried Hannah back to their little camp and set her down gently. He sat beside her and held her to help her stop shivering. “Shhh”, he said softly as he rocked her in his arms. As he held her, Dremnin’s mind considered what the girl had told him… things a child could not possibly know… or should know. When Hannah was calm again, he said, “Little one, I need to go check on one of our group. Why don’t you boil some water and make us some tea, eh? I won’t be gone long.” He smiled down at her and gave her a reassuring hug, then stood and trotted off into the caverns to find their magician.
Dremnin walked quietly up to where Vridich sat and saw the elf sitting on a mat, cross legged, hunched over what appeared to be the Book of Tomorrow. He appeared to be studying/reading it, and the human waited patiently for the elf to look up at him. Seeing no reaction to his presence, Dremnin asked in a low, serious voice, “Vridich, may I please speak with you? I am in need of your special skills and knowledge.” He waited for the Nethermancer to reply.
Upon hearing Dremnin’s voice, the elf’s hooded head turned toward the scout and he stared intently at his human colleague for a brief moment before shutting the book and placing it aside. Dremnin took the elf’s action as an invitation to sit, and he did so. “As one who has obviously studied the magical arts, and as a blood-oath brother, I need your assistance and advice”, he said quietly. He paused for a moment to make sure the magician was with him before continuing. “I have been speaking with Hannah, the child who came with us from the mines, and she has told me some very disturbing things about herself. She is afraid… no, terrified is a better word… that there is something inside her… something dark and horrible that causes her to have nightmares, and which she says caused those damned child-demons in the Kaer to leave her alone when they attacked the rest of us. Can you help me?”
“I’m listening Dremnin”, the mage said in reply, “Tell me about the girl.” As the scout related the story and its details to Vridich, the elf began to readjust the wraps on his arms so that soon the skin on his fingers was the only skin left showing.
The scout nodded and continued, explaining, “She says that she was not alive until I breathed life into her by the Temple pool in the Kaer, after she stopped breathing under water on the way to the Kaer. She also said that other children had been afraid of her, because of what was inside her. And just now, she broke down into terrified sobs when bathing”. Dremnin paused to allow Vridich to think and respond.
“Hmm…”, came the immediate response. After a few moments of contemplation while nodding to himself, Vridich slowly stood up to his full height. As he began to pace, he said, “That is very interesting. I have a theory, but currently no proof to backup what I am about to tell you.” Taking a moment to stop pacing and turn towards Dremnin, he carried on. “Back in the mines, on that day we gave Aughra our blood oath, I felt a….presence. Before I had time to investigate, as you recall, everything went black and then we fought and ran for our lives. Looking back now, I believe that the old Crone was Horror Marked. I also believe, from what you have just told me, that Hannah is Marked as well.” Vridich paused again to look back at Dremnin. Pacing a little faster now, “In fact, I believe that many in the mines had been Marked by this Horror. It was a perfect breeding ground for misery and despair. The very things that Horrors feed off of. My argument is further strengthened by the fact that we fought undead, which are strictly Horror creations. While most of us were undernourished, the slaves that died immediately, were most assuredly Marked as well. The guards, because they were well fed, didn’t die, but were turned into Undead instead.”
With this Vridich stopped pacing with his back to Dremnin. He stared off into the cave while continuing on. “A Horror Mark is similar in nature to what we Magicians call a magical thread. We use magical threads to help us power spells, items, peoples and places. The stronger the magical thread, the more likely your magical endeavor is to succeed. But unlike a Horror Mark, a magical thread is more like a river, it only flows one direction. A Horror Mark is more like a lake, with you in the middle and the water is the Horror. It completely surrounds you, waiting to pull you under.” Sitting back down in front of Dremnin, Vridich stared intently at him, and the scout leaned closer to listen closely to the mage as he continued.
“I postulate that when Hannah drowned, the Mark on her was….loosened, if not fully released. For in magic, if the person, place or thing that you have tied a thread to no longer exists, there can be no thread. Make sense?” Dremnin nodded in response. “Well, it’s either that or she has an upset stomach. In which event, I have some herbs you can give her that should help.” A small smile plays at the corner of Vridich’s mouth.
Dremnin’s mind flew through the explanation that he’d just been given. “Is she safe then?”, he asked hopefully. Then the scout gave Vridich a nod and a puzzled smile in return, but asked, “If the Horror Mark was loosened and removed, then what saved her from the attacks of child-demons of the Kaer? What made them hold off? How can we be sure she’s free of the taint?”
“Safe? I cannot answer that question, for I do not have enough information to formulate an true response. I can only presume that she has to be somewhat safer due to her brush with death. However, in theory, it is possible to detect Horror Marks by looking at her Astrally. This is something that I am able to accomplish, but I’m afraid the girl will find it to be….unnerving. If you’d like, we could wait till she is asleep, and I could inspect her then.” At this Vridich pulls a small pot off of the nearby fire and pours some of it into two cups. Offering one to Dremnin, “Tea?” Dremnin accepted the cup of tea from Vridich saying, “Yes, thank you.” The two name givers sat there in silence, each with his own thoughts.
Continuing on after a few sips of the biter brew, Vridich said, "As to your remaining questions, I believe the Horror that has Marked Hannah may be the same Horror that resides here. OR instead, we are dealing with two separate Horrors. The one Horror that had infected the mines, and the one that Thorin claims created this realm we now inhabit. Either way, the child-like abominations didn’t attack her because she was “one of their own”. At this time, I can’t say which of these is reality."
Taking another sip of tea before speaking, Dremnin said, “I think looking at her astrally would be a good idea, so that we might know if a Horror taint remains or not. Your suggestion of conducting this as she sleeps is a good idea in order not to scare her any more than she already is. I will be there with her to comfort her if she wakes.” Another sip of tea to consider, then Dremnin added, “If she remains tainted, it might be better if we were not to include her in any discussions of tactics, in order not to give our plans to this Selenys creature on a gold platter. I would like to assure her that she is free from the Horror that ruled her before, but I do not want to say that if it is untrue.” The human paused once more to sip his tea again, then continued, asking, “How much control does a Horror exert on beings it has marked? Are they puppets?”
Holding the cup with both hands, Vridich stared into the liquid for some time. “I can only answer based on the Legends that I have heard regarding Horrors”, he said. “They seem to never take direct action upon their victims, as they much prefer them to suffer slowly. While it would be nice to think that they are all the same nightmarish creatures, they are in fact not. Some prefer their victims to suffer physical pain over mental anguish. Fear. Sorrow. All of these can be aphrodisiacs to a Horror. But unless directly confronted, or the victim has completely given up on hope, ergo Life, I can only speculate that the Horror can’t directly work though Hannah.”
Dremnin nodded at the magician’s words of wisdom as he spoke, then sat quietly to finish his tea and consider the implications and what he knew of the situation. “Very well then”, the scout said as he decided. “Come by after we she is asleep and have a look. I don’t want to frighten her any more than she already is. But we need to know if the Horror still has a purchase on her life and spirit. I want that black devil gone from her, that she may grow up and know a normal life. She recognizes me as her father, and I am pleased to fill that role for her. Just treat her accordingly, all right?” The human scout stood and handed his cup back to the magician. “I’ll bid you good night then, and will look forward to breaking fast with you a’morn. May Floranuus guide you to victory in this matter, and save a child.” Vridich gave a slow nod of his hooded head and watched the scout walk back to his own area.
Later than night, sometime after everyone was asleep, Vridich quietly walked over to Hannah’s mat. Squatting down close to her, he sat unmoving for a few moments. He then motioned with one of his long, elven fingers at her and quietly said some words. For a brief second, a blue light cascaded out from underneath his hooded face and then faded, at which point he slowly shook his head and quietly got up. Walking softly over to Dremnin’s mat, he nudged the scout awake. Motioning for Dremnin to follow, he lead him to an empty chamber so that they could speak together. “I’m afraid my suspicions were correct”, the magician confided. “She is indeed Marked. I’m also fairly certain that her Mark is not the same Horror that created this Realm. However”, he cautioned, “if you value her life, I think it wise not to mention this to Thorin’s people. They are a bit edgy concerning matters of Horrors and such.”
Dremnin listened solemnly to the words he had dreaded, yet felt were coming. “Thank you for your help, Vridich. This is good to know and will help us act accordingly. She is truly terrified of what lies within her, and I can understand her fears just from the limited experience I have had with the Horror of the Kaer and its minions. I agree with your cautious words, and will say nothing to her or to Thorin’s people. Here we face a different enemy, which must be defeated before anything else can take place.” He patted the magician on the back and smiled, saying, “Let’s both get some sleep and let the events of tomorrow wait a bit longer, hm?” The scout then headed back to his bedroll and said a silent prayer to Floranuus for victory over Hannah’s tormentor.
Dremnin and Vridich