Lake Antille's foggy shroud made the valley the lake occupied seem to glow with an inner, fiery light in the midday sun's light. The perpetual fog bank was at its weakest, in the midday heat; but at the elevation of the Bloorineth Mountains, that weak fog bank still hid the surface of the lake from any observer – even standing ten feet away from its shores.
Eedrick was further away. He looked down at the lightly glowing, shadowy mass, from a slight ridge, miles away. Antille was a large lake, disappearing off into the distance; no man could hope to walk its length in a day. Riding its length would be similarly difficult, even in under a day.
The chill wind from the higher peaks threw stray hairs from Eedrick's dark braid about. His breath frosted into the clear air, and small crystals of ice accumulated in his thick beard. He squinted, shielding his eyes with his hand from the glare of the snow on the ridge.
“By Elinthar. That's a lot to protect.”
He shifted his pack, awkward with the extra layers of clothing, and began to walk down off the ridge, towards the deep fog.
Close to an hour later, the fog was beginning to slip tendrils of itself, out towards Eedrick. He was closer to Lake Antille, and could feel the warmth the lake generated. The soft fog smelled faintly of earth, and it was unlike anything he had ever known.
A moment later, he suddenly stepped in the warm waters, his boot soles splashing a bit of it. Eedrick leapt back, surprised. The water had caught him unawares. He looked at his boots, and was satisified that the slight emersion had not gotten his feet wet – a deadly thing, in the high mountains.
Soft and feminine, he heard a soft chuckle behind him. Eedrick whirled, but there was nothing there.
He scowled, his hand going to the hilt of his sabre. “Someone there?”
There was only the soft caress of the wind, from the mountains, and the perpetual fog bank.
“I must be going mad.” Eedrick shook his head, and proceeded to walk around the north side of the lake, watching for the edge very carefully.
Small, fast flowing streams fed the lake from runoff, from the Bloorineths' high peaks. He leapt over most of them, but had to carefully toss small rocks into the waters, and leap to those, and then across, to cross others. There were a great many small, rounded rocks and pepples. They made up the shore of the lake, as well as the shores of the streams.
Sometimes, out of the fog, dark forms would appear. Eedrick would cautiously approach, his every sense searching for danger – only to discover that the dark form was a boulder, or misshapen rock. He continued on.
Another form loomed up out of the shadows. Still cautious, Eedrick approached with the hair on the back of his neck trying to rise. Of a sudden, he heard the lapping of a tongue on water, drinking.
Eedrick's eyes went wide, as he realized what the form was. It was a minotaur lizard. Its six foot long legs were out to either side, supporting the creature's vast bulk. Fully sixty feet long, it could easily swallow Eedrick whole with its vast maw, filled with many tiny teeth. Eight foot long horns spread to either side of the lizard's head, and forward – a formidible weapon. Spines similar to the horns swept down the creature's lightly scaled hide, towards its tail.
The creature continued to drink from the waters, ignoring or unaware of Eedrick. The ranger whispered softly, raising his voice from silence to a bare whisper, very slowly.
The minotaur lizard paused in its drinking, and turned its head. Its large eyes easily pierced the fog, and it regarded Eedrick with one eye.
His whisper was very slowly, but very steadily growing louder. He spoke of soothing things, letting the tone of his voice carry to the creature. The words were an ancient litany from the holy books of Elinthar. Slowly, carefully, power suffused the words.
The lizard slid its nictating membrane up over its visible eye, and then seemed to purr from deep within its throat. The rasping purr continued, as Eedrich slowly moved forwards, and placed his hand over the hearing diaphragm of the large head.
He could feel the creature's purring through the diaphragm, and he quickly assessed its health. Though enormous, the lizard was gaunt. Its scales were brittle. As he continued the soft chant, he slipped a hand along the creature's hide, and one of the scales shattered under his touch.
Eedrich let the chant fall away, and he smiled softly, careful not to show his teeth. “You've come here to die.” He gently patted the creature's head. “I understand. I've come here, to live. If you'd like some company – I'm here.”
The lizard turned its great head, to peer closely at Eedrich with one eye. The nictating membrane fell away, and the ranger could see that the eye was clouded with age.
Suddenly, the eye flicked its turrent away from Eedrich, looking up. The minotaur lizard, for all its age, was quick; it spun, its great clawed toes throwing up small stones, and whipped its body around. The great tail of the creature slammed into Eedrich, knocking him into the warm waters.
The ranger sat up in the shallow water, and heard the giant lizard pounding away. “Wha?”
He heard its silence. Its bulk was so vast that it blocked out the sound of the wind in the mountains. The form slid over him, nothing more than a shadow in the glowing fog. As it passed, the silent wind of its passage cut a deep furrow of clear air through the perpetual fog.
Eedrich saw the roc's massive tail feathers arrange vertically, controlling its flight. Each of the hawk's wings was close to forty feet long. As large as the minotaur lizard was, as formidable as its horns and bite, it was nothing compared to the great hawk.
The roc hawk was airborne a moment later, the form of the minotaur lizard held in its claws – limp, dead.
Eedrich sighed. He splashed some water onto his beard, and saw a bit of crimson flash briefly in the water, before the fog obscured his view. He felt his nose. It was broken.
Growling, he stomped out of the water, towards the shore. He was shrugging off his pack, when it slammed into him from behind.
Eedrich heard his camping equipment snapping to pieces, as a great claw pinned him to the pebbly shore. His broken nose was on fire, but he realized he was otherwise unharmed. He turned his head, trying to see what was attacking his pack.
There was nothing, save the view of the claws. And then a reptilian head on a ridiculously long neck swept down out of the fog, attacking his pack, again. Bits of wood splintered, and an iron pot audibly groaned, and then bent, as the jaws of the creature clamped down.
Eedrich heard a snap, and something flew by and struck him across the cheek. He flinched, and then opened his eyes. The tip of a needle-like predator's tooth was lying nearby.
The tanystropheus, a remnant of an ancient time, nearly a snake with legs, and forty feet long, let out a bellows roar. And then it quickly slid into the water.
Eedrich finished shrugging off his pack, and examined the contents, as he slowly moved away from the shore. There were two other teeth imbedded in the soft iron of his skillet, and blood from the creature's broken teeth and gums all over it.
The ranger moved around a large boulder, and sat down, letting his knees give out.
He gasped for air, well aware of how closely he had been to death. After a moment, he closed his eyes, and slept.
He woke, when the boulder he was leaning against, stood up. The anklosaur's armored hide made it as difficult to attack as stone. Its four massive legs slowly trundled the body of the huge herbivore off.
Eedrich was still, half afraid. As the tip of the anklosaur's club-like tail disappeared into the fog, he realized that it would have remained still and hidden – like a boulder – until the creature thought that it was safe.
His nose throbbing from the pain, the ranger forced himself to dig through his pack, until he found his alcohol. He felt his face, feeling the jagged tear the tanystropheus' tooth had made in his cheek as it flew by.
He found his mirror, broken into a thousand shards. There was no way he could see his face, to sew the gash shut. He felt his nose. It had swollen enormously, painfully.
Disgusted, he threw down the leather bag of alcohol, and screamed up into the fog, “Why?! Why send me here, of all the god-forsaken places!?”
He kicked at his pack, only managing to stub his toe, and break something else that was irreplaceable in the pack.
The soft, feminine laughter echoed behind him, and he spun.
Glowing softly in the glowing, midday fog, was a faintly luminous woman. Her long golden robes shimmered, as though she were immersed in liquid. Her long golden hair flowed about her, perhaps as long as she was tall. Soft red hues flickered through her hair and robes, and red lips smiled from golden skin.
Eedrick immediately kneeled, ignoring his hurting toe, long tired feet, and exhausted body. “Chmira,” he said, with reverence. “Archon of my lord, Elinthar. How may I serve you?”
Chmira said softly, “Why are you here, Eedrick Tomol?”
The ranger's attention snapped to the archon. His eyes slid over her shoulders, to where wings were folded back; he started, focusing on her golden eyes. “I was… I was told, by Cardinal Akridorn, to come here. He said-”
The archon's chuckle interrupted him, scattered his attention to the winds. “Akridorn, the dear man, told you to come, and protect Lake Antille.”
Eedrick nodded dumbly. “Yes. Yes, Archon.”
Chmira's feet were barefoot, and she stepped lightly from stone to stone, coming closer in the golden fog. She dropped, her hands going around her knees, her long toes holding her up. Her wings spread to balance her. “What is it, you are here to protect, Eedrick Tomol?”
The ranger was distracted, by beauty so close to him. He closed his eyes, and said, “Lake Antille. I'm here, to protect Lake Antill. To protect anyone who would come to it.”
Chmira's bright smile literally glowed through his eyelids. She said softly, “Is that what the Cardinal told you?”
Eedrick opened his eyes, staring deeply into hers. He was of a sudden calm and collected. His subsconcience was screaming a warning at him. Something important was going to change his world – forever. He said, slowly, “The Cardinal said that I was to protect Lake Antille. I made a mistake, didn't I? In assuming that I was here, to protect the travellers and the lost, and the people, here, didn't I?”
Chmira's lips curled in a soft smile. “What do you know, of this lake?” Her wings fluttered back, and then forward, slipping around him in a soft hug.
The ranger thought for a moment. “Antille likes a long a trade route, from the independant city of Vess, to the independant city-state of Anolineth. The lake is warm, even during the Freeze, when no light falls for two days. Its creatures are thought to be fierce…” He paused, his brow furrowing. “But they are no more fearsome, than others, that I have faced, elsewhere.”
The archon tilted her head to one side, regarding him.
Eedrick said, “Antille is a valuable place. A place where the traders and caravaners can rest. Anything that would disturb that rest, would be dangerous.”
Chmira asked, “If you had the resources of a city-state at your disposal, and the merchants were clammoring for you to protect their favorite resting stop…”
He clenched his jaws. “I'd move a small army in, and try to clean the place out. Wipe out all of its creatures.”
The archon softly asked, “What does The God of the Hunt teach?”
“Enjoy the hunt – not the hunted.” He paused, thinking. “There will be nothing to enjoy, here. It will be a long, fierce slaughter. They can't hope to clean the lake out. It's too valuable to the animals, to the creatures.” He squinted his eyes, seeing past the archon. “They'll only lose men, and wipe out a few creatures. They'll return, thinking the lake cleared of all danger. And then another caravaner or merchant will fall, and it will all begin again.”
Chmira nodded slightly. “Why are you here, Eedrick Tomol?”
Eedrick turned his full attention on the archon. “To protect the people, and… To keep the caravaners safe, and keep the creatures from… From dying before their time.”
He looked at his hands, remembering the feel of the minotaur lizard's scales. Old. Brittle. But still full of honor. Worthy of respect.
Eedrick looked into Chmira's eyes, and said, “Thank you.”
The archon smiled. “You are not alone, in your task. There are others, here and near, that can aid you. Find them. Speak with them. Learn from them. As they will learn from you.”
Chmira stood, her wings spread wide for a moment, and then folding behind her back. Her soft golden glow began to suffuse the golden glow of the fog.
Eedrick said, “Wait! I've so many questions!”
The archon's glow merged with the fog, and he could no longer see her. “You must walk a fine line, Eedrick Tomol. Balance the needs of your peoples, with the needs of Elinthar's creatures. You have my blessing. You have His.”
And she was gone.
Eedrick looked at his hands. Just below the surface, he could feel… something. He stood up, and instinctively touched his hand to his cheek, to the drying blood from the tanystropheus' tooth-wound.
A spark of green lightning leapt from his hand, to his cheek. The spark threw all of his hair out away from his body, electrifying him with its current. The lightning continued to flow, burning and coursing through him, leaping deep within the tissue of his cheek.
He felt it. The individual cells of his skin were responding to the wound. Sending messages to one another. Encouraging one another to proliferate. Working quickly – but only as quickly as possible. There were many fail-safes involved, to prevent the proliferation from being too hasty. The cell bodies themselves were easy to replicate – it happened quickly.
But the heart of the cell, its nucleus, contained a billion years worth of information, and more. The genetic information for forming a whole human being – for forming Eedrick Tomol. Duplicating that information, and passing it to divided cells – that was the crux of the healing's slowness. The reason for the slowness of the healing.
The green spark of lightning reached deep within each cell. It reached within the nucleus, guarding it, sheppherding the replication of so much information. Speeding it up. Faster.
Eedrick saw in his mind's eye beautiful helices and lattices splitting apart at the speed of thought, and being rebound together with green, healing energy.
In the time it took him to draw a gasp, from the shock of the spark, it was done. He pulled his hand from his cheek, and then put it back. Feeling the skin.
His hair was still standing straight out, bushy. His fingers traced along the scar. It felt as though it were old – years old. And healed. His nose. He touched his nose, and the swelling was gone. The bone and cartilage already knit into a new whole.
Eedrick Tomol dropped to his knees, and touched his forehead to the damp stones. “Elinthar, God of the Hunt. I take the title of esparases katal upon myself. Druid. Ranger.”