A D&D Story
The following is a first-draft, unedited short story set in my homebrew world of Talamon. It tells the back-story of one of the many memorable player characters who have been adventurers in that world. Falcon is a warforged druid. In the first campaign I had asked people to come up with a character who was one of the tight core races – human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling (known as goodfolk in Talamon) – or at least be able to pass for one of them. Almost half the players went out of their way to create characters who were NOT of those races but disguised themselves in some way. Falcon was one of these.
The Legend of Falcon
How an Aeonian Mechanican Scout Came to Have a Soul.
- Zanna – a gnome artificer
- Nickel – a kobold artificer
- Φ*-47824 a.k.a. Falcon – a mechanican (* the Greek letter Phi)
- Firion Blackdrake – an Aeonian soldier and political candidate from one of the founding families.
- Falor – a human fighter (pronounced valour)
- Gusti – a dwarf barbarian
- Aeschalos – an elf ranger
- Damos – a human druid
- Bract – a goodfolk druid acolyte
- Ygarwn – a human druid acolyte (pronounced ee-gar-un)
- Galrean – a human priest to the goddess Gallobana
Concepts and places
- Aeona – The eternal city, a city of a million souls of which the majority are slaves from all races. Their masters, almost exclusively humans, have conquered the lands surrounding their city region by region.
- Aeonia – The wider empire controlled by the city of Aeona. Surrounding the central sea it consists of the Aeonian peninsula, Saltford province to the north, Gloomwood to the north-west, Caburgh to the south west, and Khoffey to the south-east.
- Mechanican – a magically created creature blending organic with mechanical parts. Treated as a slightly superior slave they are designed to serve in the army as auxiliaries doing the worst or most difficult jobs, such as taking on the front line at the start of battle and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. They are fewer in number than human soldiers but considered more expendable. No other races serve in the Aeonian army.
- Tira Fawr – (Pronounced Ti-ra vow-r) a wild land which remains independent from Aeonia and would like to stay that way. The people are a broad mix of humans, dwarfs, and elves, with the ubiquitous goodfolk and a few other races for good measure.
- Oliriond – the largest town in the Kwrann Isles. Situated on the island of Ig Mawr.
- Gallobana – triple headed deity of the city of Oliriond and the island of Ig Mawr
Birth of a Legend
Zanna carefully inserted a probe into the lifeless body before her. This body: partly mechanical partly organic, the two elements fused using powerful magical rituals forming a more complex whole, belonged to a warrior in the Aeonian army. A mechanican, forged by artificers to wage war. Specifically it was a Phi unit, with the number Φ-47824 engraved on a chest plate. It was a scout, built for stealth, able to survive for long periods in the wilderness, requiring no sleep, making use of natural cover in order to carry out detailed reconnaissance on enemy positions.
The procedure now being carried out by the gnome artificer was a delicate one, requiring the precise location of a series of tiny crystals, each to be placed in the correct location, while the correct incantations were spoken. A single mistake could be catastrophic. It was, therefore, inconvenient in the extreme that, just as Zanna inserted the last crystal, an excitable and overeager kobold bounded in carrying a tray of drinks, knocked Zanna’s hand, and spilled a quantity of hot tisane into Φ-47824’s main control panel.
“Nickel!” Zanna hissed.
It was unfortunate that at that very moment the Aeonian overseer happened to be coming in that direction on his rounds. Humans, even the nice ones, saw gnomes as scarcely better than rats, and kobolds ranked lower still. Zanna swiftly closed the cover on the chest cavity and made a noise implying that she was satisfied with her work. Nickel, the blundering silver kobold mopped up the spilled drink.
“Is that Phi unit ready yet?” the supervisor barked. “We need every mechanican in the field, especially scouts.”
“I, just need to make some more checks,” mumbled Zanna looking desperately at the floor to avoid meeting her master’s gaze. She was a competent artificer, heck even Nickel was better at this kind of work than most heavy-handed humans. But humans didn’t need to get their hands dirty when there were slaves to do everything.
“If you needed more checks, why were you closing up?”
“Get it up and operational. And stop wasting time!”
“Yes, master.” Zanna kept her eyes averted. Looking directly at her human master was not a career move that an intelligent gnome would wish to pursue. Beside her, Nickel also said nothing. She knew that you don’t speak unless you are told to or have been asked a direct question.
Reluctantly Zanna moved her hands in a complex motion muttering “Ballutu Nepesu Abru.”
The mechanican’s eyes glowed, fingers twitched, the head moved, and it raised itself from the workbench. It looked at Zanna and then took in the huge artificers’ laboratory.
“Come on you. Got a mission for you.”
Φ-47824 followed the human who was wearing a red and silver striped tunic. A simple garment that told a complex story. Firion Blackdrake wore the red stripe which showed he was entitled to respect purely by reason of his family name. The Blackdrakes were one of the founding families of Aeona and were entitled to wear this stripe. He added to this by his achievements. Silver denoted success as a military commander. The only greater honour was success in the world of politics. Firion was standing for election to the senate. If successful he would wear the gold stripe and be permitted to advise the emperor.
Firion led the mechanican to the barracks where he produced crudely drawn maps and explained the situation. He failed to notice anything unusual in the behaviour of Φ-47824. It was natural to assume that it was paying full attention to the briefing. They were built purely to obey orders; tireless and naturally armoured, they were the perfect soldiers. However, the mechanican paid scant attention. Instead his eye was drawn to something that had never interested him before. Something he had never noticed before because it had no significance to his purpose. A spider was working away building a web. The intricate mathematical precision began to fascinate the machine. For the first time it noticed the sun as something more than a source of light. It noticed how it glinted and sparkled on the silvery strands of silk; how it focussed and crystalised through a tiny dew drop at the corner. And then the mechanican’s eyes adjusted their focus again as a new phenomenon entered its field of view. A dark shape flashed in front of the sun; the antithesis of the bright yellow immutable circle, a dark angular shape shifting strangely, like a shadow moving across a rough surface. As it moved across the sky, framed against the bronze-blue, it resolved into a falcon. Φ-47824 had seen falcons, of course. Clerics would watch the flights of birds, especially raptors, before battles. A favourable flight might mean certain victory, an unfavourable one would see the generals decide to change their tactics or postpone battle entirely. Φ-47824 gave just enough attention to the briefing to understand that it was a mission to reconnoitre the lands to the west which had, so far, held out against the Aeonian empire.
Φ-47824 walked out, into the Aeonian sun and looked at the horizon with new eyes.
Flight of the Falcon
Tira Fawr is a substantial peninsula of land jutting out into the western ocean. A rocky landscape with ridges of high steep hills which never quite reach the status of mountains, its people matching its statuesque rugged grandeur: tall humans, broad shouldered, competitive, proud: stocky dwarfs, stolid, beetle browed, with flowing beards, and calm resolve: graceful elves, lithe, beautiful, with memories of a time when they ruled the world. Beyond the border and the final ridge of the highest hills it slopes down to the coastal plains of Caburgh province, to the south, Newport, to the north-east, Caburgh city.
The vast human-dominated empire of Aeonia had spent its resources heavily in the north-east, shoring up defences against a possible incursion from the dark realm of Krizshuma. The Pompeian wall had taken ten years and thousands of people in its construction. Named for the emperor who built it, Pompus Aenus, although he had barely set foot anywhere near the site of construction except to lay the first stone, and to declare the edifice completed. Slaves carried out much of the physical labour, but the engineering expertise was the preserve of the human army and the founding families, including the Aeni. The army was needed, also, to protect the builders. Still, many disappeared. Nobody was quite certain, but there were stories. No mechanicans ever disappeared. If they were attacked and destroyed the bodies were left where they had died. Humans were the most likely to disappear, their bodies never recovered. Other races fared better by varying degrees. Reptilians like kobolds and dragonborn being almost as likely to be found dead as mechanicans. Not that being found helped the corpse much; it allowed, at least, for a proper ritual to help them into the next world. The few survivors gave descriptions as best they could. But there were very few survivors.
Φ-47824 moved surprisingly quietly for a creature with a metallic exoskeleton. It was a testament to the craftsmanship of the slave artificers. They were among the only users of magic permitted to practice their arts in Aeona. The others being paladins and clerics, whose magic was a gift from the gods. Wizards and druids, if they existed in the eternal city at all, did so secretly and in constant fear. Warlocks were even more hated by the empire, their powers coming from forbidden demonic sources. The even rarer sorcerers were lumped in with warlocks and were anathema.
There was a small encampment about a mile ahead. A few circular huts with reed roofs, the walls made from woven sticks and compressed dried animal dung. A large campfire smouldered in the middle of the group of huts. The smell of roasting meat wafted over. Φ-47824 had no need for food but the smell interested him. This was not a full permanent settlement. It would be occupied at certain times of the year as a base for hunting parties. In the depths of winter, the hunters would retreat to larger fortified towns and scattered farming villages.
A falcon flew right to left across the sky. A good omen. Φ-47824 stood up, exposing itself above the skyline. It walked forward, following the bird’s arial trajectory from its lowly position on the ground. Φ-47824 began to run, flapping its arms, and skipping every few steps, as if attempting to take flight. He ran, and ran, tirelessly, surefooted on the rough terrain.
A small band of hunters from the encampment watched as the mechanican cavorted like a child, the sun glinting off polished steel and bronze, his eyes glowing brighter than they had ever glowed. And a sound came from the mechanican that had never come from one of his kind before. It was a strange stuttering sound, somewhat musical yet strangely metallic. Like someone blowing a series of short blasts through a trumpet. As if a trumpet player were attempting to make a sound like, like human laughter.
“Falcon! Falcon, come to me! I am you and you are me!” another trumpet laugh emerged.
“I am Falcon,” the mechanican cried to the gods as he stopped and turned around on the spot, his arms stretched wide in a great big metallic T.
“I … AM … Falcon!”
And then a hand axe, expertly thrown by the hunter, hit Falcon on the back of the head causing him to tumble over, falling thirty feet down the rocky slope.
Falcon awoke at night. Or at least that was his first assumption. It was dark in the hut, but tiny slivers of daylight showed through the walls and filtered through the heavy leather skin hanging in front of what he presumed to be the door.
Falcon turned his head towards the voice. A shaggy-bearded creature was watching him through black eyes. He was partially covered with animal furs, crudely trimmed, and stitched into a jerkin that left the arms bare. Dark tattoos snaked down both arms disappearing beneath plaited leather bracers. Falcon identified the creature as a dwarf. Two more humanoids, one human and one elf, pushed the heavy hanging leather door aside and the hut flooded with light leaving Falcon momentarily blinded. The smell of sweat mingled with the woodsmoke from the small fire inside the hut. Falcon was used to incense burners, and the heated floors of Aeonian houses, although he had a better tolerance for temperature changes than any human, and smells were simply an input, so it didn’t matter. It was just a new sensation to add to his database of knowledge. The humanoids were talking.
“If they’ve sent a scout, that means they are planning an attack.” The human began.
“Correction,” interjected the elf, “it means they are gathering knowledge to decide if they should plan an attack. Any attack plans would require substantial troop movements. Gatherings of legions on our borders. We’ve seen no evidence of that.”
“And we’ve captured their scout so it can’t report back. So we’re safe, right?” the dwarf added.
“Of course we’re not safe.” The human retorted. “We’re never safe. If you listened to the histories, instead of drinking too much and falling asleep, you would know that Aeona exists to conquer. One land at a time. Their leading families literally rise to power and wealth through conquest. They have left Tira Fawr alone while they marched into Saltford. The elves fled to the deepest forests or to places like here,” he glanced at the elf. “or to Rude Island, or Ourland, places that were still independent. They captured Khoffey and the whole Dusk River valley and only stopped at the mountains because it was easier to trade with the dwarfs than conquer them. They only built a wall along the Scarwood River because even the Aeonians aren’t crazy enough to fight Krizshuma. Logically Tira Fawr is the next land they want to take over and they won’t stop with us. They will carry on until they have taken the Kwrann Isles as well. After that, I suppose they will roll up Ourland and Rude Island before turning back to the south and bringing the mountains and the rainforest into their empire.”
“You give the human empire too much credit, Falor. The dwarfs won’t roll over so easily in the mountains. I’ve been to those citadels. You humans would get lost before you even met a dwarf soldier, and you would regret it when you did.”
“Don’t lump me in with Aeonia, Gusti, not all humans, OK?” the human identified as Falor said.
“Yeah, yeah. Not all humans. Right.” The dwarf, now identified as Gusti, replied.
“So what do we do with this mechanican scout?” the elf focussed on the immediate problem.
“Destroy it. They’re no use to us unless we can control them. We can’t let it report back.” Falor said.
“Please?” Falcon muttered, in a voice that sounded almost human.
“See, it’s begging to be smashed up. There’s something not right about a machine with organic bits inside. Something fiendish. I’d sooner turn my back on a goblin horde than trust one of these things.”
“I am not a thing. I am Falcon, and I want to fly with the birds.” Falcon sounded almost ethereal.
“Can a machine go crazy?” Gusti wondered aloud.
The elf looked quizzical. “Before today, I would have said no. But …”
“I’m not crazy. I am … Falcon.”
“Well, Falcon also known as …” Falor read off the number on Falcon’s chest plate, “circle with a line through it-47824, you will shortly be the dismantled and defunct Falcon-symbol-47824 and we can get on with getting the harvest in.”
“After I am dismantled, will your artificers rebuild me? I don’t want to be reset.”
“Artificers? I shouldn’t think so. But your arms might make me a better pair of bracers, and I daresay I could beat your head out a bit bigger to make a serviceable helmet. So, in a sense, yes, we’ll rebuild you.”
“But then I would no longer be me.”
Again the elf looked thoughtful. “But there’s no ‘you’ to be. You’re just a machine.”
“I have a soul. I feel it.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Gusti grunted. “Isn’t there some sort of off switch?”
“No, wait. Allow an old elf a little curiosity. It’s only a scout so it can’t do any real harm unless it escapes and gets back to report.”
“What are you suggesting, Aeschalos?”
“Leave the scout with me. I promise not to let it escape. I want to find out more about this mechanican. And who knows, perhaps I may find out something of use to our people as well.”
“I don’t know,” Gusti began.
Falor interrupted. “Aeschalos is a ranger. Even if the scout escapes, he can place a mark on it, so he would be able to track it even if it leaves no trail. And maybe if this … Falcon … really has a soul, then perhaps it has a conscience as well?”
“Maybe,” Gusti agreed. “Perhaps Aeschalos you can get the bird to sing? Or screech at least!” and he laughed a laugh out of all proportion to the quality of his joke.
Moving in Circles
A year had passed since Falcon had declared his desire to fly with the birds. He had not done so but he had spent hours every day learning everything the elf knew and telling the elf everything he knew. Alas, for the elf, nothing remained in his memory of past missions. Falcon could recall nothing at all regarding his activities as an Aeonian mechanican scout. Nor could he explain why. All his other data seemed intact, and he had been adding to it under the tutelage of Aeschalos. He could now identify any tree that he had been seen, regardless of the season. Aeschalos reached up and pulled a branch down. It bore lobed leaves and small yellowish-brown nuts held in tiny cups. He looked at Falcon.
“Easy one for you.”
“The Western oak, or Tiran oak.” Falcon began, “It has a large trunk with a tight straight grain, useful for making planks and beams for building large structures like houses and ships. Also good for making handles for tools and weapons. Too many uses to make a complete list. Off-cuts and dead wood burn slowly and can produce hot embers, ideal for cooking. The sunlight filters through its crown on hot summers days in the manner of light glittering off a precious jewel. The oak is a home to an unknown number of tiny creatures as well as woodland fairies. Mosses and many different mushrooms grow on its trunks and branches, mistletoe grows high in the crown and ivy climbs its trunk. Its leaves, acorns, and bark, as well as the mosses, mistletoe, and mushrooms, provide food for a huge range of animals from the smallest birds or mice, right up to boar and even giant elk. In autumn, the leaves turn to shades of amber and brown, as the life drains from them and back into the tree. When they fall, they carpet the ground and provide shelter for more creatures, they store up moisture when it rains, and they scrunch pleasingly underfoot when you walk through the forest on a cold winter’s day. It is the king of trees and its god Duru is the king of the tree gods. The oldest oaks can provide a doorway to other worlds if you know the secret magic to find it.”
“You are the master of the full and complete answer to a question, Falcon. It is remarkable.”
“I sense that it was once better. At some time before now.”
“I think you covered everything there. How could you have done better?”
“I think Aeschalos, that if you had asked me to identify this tree a year ago, I would not have spoken of the glittering of tiny jewels, but I would have named at least the most important small creatures living on the tree. I might not have spoken of the crunch of leaves in winter and would, instead, have been able to name many of the most common mosses and mushrooms. I fear my answers are becoming more … poetic … if I may use that word? and less precise.”
“It is that poetry that has led me to bring you here. Precision is all very well, but there are few elves and even fewer humans if you want my opinion, who have as much natural affinity for the forest as I have seen in you. Let me introduce you to some friends.”
Falcon, usually a highly perceptive creature, had completely failed to notice they were approaching a group of humanoids, he noted a mix of elf and human, one dwarf, a goodfolk, and a gnome. They wore voluminous robes of undyed wool trimmed with greens and browns. Each carried a large staff, taller than a man. Well, apart from the dwarf, whose staff was as tall as a man, and the goodfolk and the gnome who carried rather smaller staffs befitting their stature.
The group stared at the interlopers and Falcon, for his part, tried to stand still while his feet took two more steps, resulting in him leaning back at a bizarre angle. He had never actually seen druids, but this group of beings appeared to fit the descriptions he had heard. Other things he had heard included that they dabbled in a dark and mysterious magic, that they could grow the roots of trees into your brain to steal your thoughts, that they could make the skies fall down and the earth open and the seas rise up. It was said too, that when either of the twin the moons were full, they would transform into beasts, bloodthirsty boars, ravenous wolves, terrifying bears, and worse. Falcon was not the only one who did not relish this meeting.
A sinewy human stepped forward, thinning grey hair showed beneath a pale hood. “What have you brought here, Aeschalos?” Fearful eyes, a watery blue, watched Falcon with deep suspicion. “A mechanican? From the empire? Here in the grove? Have you turned against us Aeschalos?”
“No, no, of course not, Damos. Far from it. I have brought you a new recruit.”
Damos looked at the elf with stunned incomprehension. Eventually he recovered a little composure. He looked past Falcon and said, “Where is the child?”
“Here.” Aeschalos indicated Falcon.
“You can not be serious!” Damos turned away but Aeschalos grabbed his arm.
“Give him a chance.”
“Him? It’s a machine, not a person. And a machine that will see our way of life destroyed!”
Damos tried to pull away, but Aeschalos held firm and spun him back to face Falcon.
“He … is as much a person as you or me. Falcon, tell Damos here about these trees.”
Falcon looked up at the canopy where sunlight danced through onto the leafy ground below. “We are standing in a grove of oaks, the oldest of these was an acorn long before you, Aeschalos were born. It will have witnessed the rise of the empire from a humble city on the banks of the Tanus River. It was a stout sapling before the Colossus was built in Rude Island. It lived during the time when priest kings ruled Khoffey on the Dusk River. In their lifetime, these trees have drawn up enough water to fill the great central sea to the brim. They have grown and dropped enough leaves to cover the desert in three feet of mulch. They have provided homes and shelter for thousands of plants and mushrooms, and for a thousand times a thousand animals. Duru is the king of the forest gods, but within just one of his trees there are hundreds of demigods and spirit guardians. Or did you want more specific facts and figures?”
Damos could not hide that he was impressed.
“But … he is made of metal. No druid wears or uses metal.”
“You know Damos, I am but a humble ranger, but I have always thought it was more of a guideline that an actual rule.” The druids had simple huts, like the ones in the hunters’ encampment. Circular constructions of wattle and daub, with thatched conical roofs. Aeschalos moved nonchalantly over towards them.
Damos followed, protesting vehemently, “It’s a hard and fast rule. We druids don’t use metals. Leather armour is allowable, a wooden staff, you see?” He waved the staff as if to demonstrate. Aeschalos moved closer to the hut and approached the fire pit where a big iron pot simmered and bubbled emitting a delicious aroma or stewing meat and vegetables.
“No metal?” He tipped the pot up with his foot, beginning to pour some of the stew onto the fire which smoked unpleasantly.
“Stop, stop, stop! Look, be reasonable, even a druid needs a cooking pot.”
Aeschalos stepped inside the hut. “Nice sickle! Oak is it?”
“You know it’s gold!”
“Knowing you it’s gold plate on steel.” He looked closely at the blade, “Gallobana’s heads it is! You cheapskate Damos!”
“Well, you can’t keep an edge worth a damn on solid gold. I always regild it before cutting anything.” Damos saw the elf’s expression. “Look, have you ever tried cutting mistletoe while you’re fifty feet up a bloody tree with half a dozen acolytes waiting below with a bull’s hide?”
“Hmm … I can’t say I have. I’m sure I would remember. Oh look, is this a scimitar? Now that is definitely steel. You can’t keep an edge worth a damn on beech or ash, or so I am led to believe.”
Damos tried without success, to take the sword away from the elf. Falcon watched from outside the hut.
“The handle is yew. It’s the handle that matters, not the blade. Druids can’t come into contact with metal.”
“So how do you clean the blade?”
“Prestidigitation of course.”
“Look, all I am asking is you give Falcon a try. If he doesn’t take to it, you’ve lost nothing. He certainly won’t dob you in to the empire. He’s glad to be away from them. Something’s gone a-cock with is works and he’s … well … he’s almost human, poor sod.”
Damos looked as though he was giving it serious consideration.
“I’ve taught him everything I know.” Aeschalos added.
“Oh thanks, so he’s coming to us stupider than when he met you then?” Damos said with barely any trace of a smile.
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down.” Aeschalos said. “Falcon! You’re to join this band of tree huggers and do everything they tell you, got that?”
“I didn’t say yes, yet.”
“Yet? I’ll take that to mean that you will. It’s a deal then”
“Will they teach me to fly like a falcon?”
“You have a bit to learn before you can fly,” Aeschalos told him, “but … yes … eventually, you could learn to fly, if you choose the right path.”
Falcon’s eyes glowed brighter.
“Oh Noxos,” the druid muttered, resigned to his fate.
“Oh, I should pay you for your trouble, Damos.” Aeschalos pulled a pouch from his waistband. “Here’s a bag of gold … on no, wait! Gold’s metal.” He tossed it in his hand a couple of times, and then threw it to the old druid. “I guess you will find a way to use it without touching it!” and he laughed as he turned away and disappeared into the forest.
Falcon had lived with the druids for another year. They went back to basics, teaching him the most fundamental aspects of druidic lore. He learned their language and secret rituals. He even learned a few very simple spells, cantrips really, nothing too demanding or exhausting to cast. From there, gradually moving on to learn some slightly more powerful magic giving him the power to charm the beasts of the field, to heal the sick, or control the elements. Falcon felt something that no mechanican had ever felt before. Falcon was happy.
The other acolytes were mostly adolescent humans, the youngest still children. There were two dwarfs, and an elf who did not seem much older. Falcon had scarcely any memories of events from before he had been worked on by the gnome artificer, but he had his core knowledge base intact. He knew, for example that elves and dwarfs lived longer than humans. He knew that, in theory at least, a mechanican like him could live at least as long as elves. He had no idea how old he was. In a sense, he had been reborn, so he was a little over two years old. Internally he chuckled. If he were a human or elf, he would be walking uncertainly and saying a few words. As a dwarf he would barely be crawling.
The other druids and acolytes treated him with varying degrees of acceptance. Some passed food and drink to him until they realised that he needed none and could not eat it even to be polite. A few found ways to keep away from him but without being openly hostile. It was perhaps odd that the only acolyte who seemed openly hostile was Bract, a young goodfolk lad who was small even for goodfolk. Bract would keep as far from Falcon as he could, and every time Falcon happened to glance in his direction it seemed that he had a special scowl reserved just for the mechanican. The friendliest of the acolytes was a human youth name Ysgarwn. A willowy youth with downy tufts of hair growing unevenly on a soft rounded face. Ysgarwn took Falcon under his wing in the early weeks, helping him to fit in and defending him from criticism from those acolytes less willing to accept a mechanican among their ranks.
It was the month of Zimen, snow dusted the forest floor, sprinkled where it had fallen between the branches, and clumped where it had gathered on branches and fallen off in lumps. The end of the old year approached and the three-day Hivernacht festival beckoned. Falcon stood with a group of acolytes holding a large circular white cloth stretched out beneath a tall oak tree. High up in the branches the sounds of grunting and what might have been muttered swearing drifted down, along with bits of bark and debris as a druid who was, frankly, too old for this shit, attempted to get into a position where he could cut some mistletoe down. Eventually, satisfied, he raised the golden bladed sickle and swept it against the epiphyte’s stem. A good clump fell towards the waiting acolytes who caught it soundly in the sheet. Another druid gathered the cuttings together while the arborist above continued hacking away. Eventually enough mistletoe had been gathered to satisfy the druids and the party gathered everything together to head back to the camp.
“I wonder how Bract is getting on?” one of the acolytes said aloud.
“He’ll ace it. It’s not like he does anything else but study.”
Bract was away taking one of the exacting tests that the druids would make the acolytes undergo to prove they had absorbed all their lessons. These tests involved reciting lengthy histories, lists of deities, properties of trees and plants, and all sorts of druidic lore. This was made al the harder as the whole had to be conducted in druidic, although at least it was written in poetry which made it easier to remember. Bract had earned a reputation for being studious, distant, and aloof.
“Does anyone know why he hates me so much?” Falcon asked.
This elicited a brief discussion.
“I think he hates everyone.”
“I know what Falcon means though. When he looks at any of us he just looks bored, but there’s real malice in his eyes when he looks at Falcon.”
“I dunno. I saw him smile at Falcon the other day.”
“More likely got something trapped in his teeth. Are you sure it wasn’t a grimace?”
“Well, I dunno for sure. He’s a devious little bugger.”
“Maybe he was smiling because he’s got some evil plan.” This was Ysgarwn.
“Going to poison Falcon’s food?”
Everyone laughed, even Falcon made the sound that everyone now accepted as his laugh. It was strange to hear a mechanican laugh, even for people who did not spend much time around the mechanical soldiers.
The laughter was shattered as a flurry of arrows flew out from the surrounding trees. Two acolytes were struck down in the first volley. Aeonian soldiers emerged from the undergrowth reloading for a second shot. Mechanicans accompanied them.
“Bract!” one of the acolytes cried, and everyone else had mentally thought the same thing. Bract had done something awful. They knew that Falcon was really a scout from the Aeonian army, that the empire was probably keen to recover him and, presumably reset him. Nobody wanted that. Ysgarwn had discussed Falcon’s history at length. He had assured Falcon that he would keep him safe from the empire. How could Bract have turned traitor on the entire circle?
From high in the oak tree a streak of icy energy shot into one of the attackers. They ceased moving as a chill enervated their body, arcing from them to the nearest fighters who were lacerated by shards of super-chilled ice. The soldiers were approaching up the slope from the east. The druids were hopelessly outnumbered and out-armed.
Another druid fired off a spell which withered and died as it was cast. He looked towards the approaching soldiers and knew immediately why. The mechanicans were carrying anti-magic field generators. These were artificer designed devices that could cut off any spell within their field of effect. He grabbed the nearest acolytes and dragged them with him, screaming to the rest to run for their lives. Another volley of arrows screamed through the frigid air and acolytes went down on all sides as Falcon ran. From the oak tree another ice-knife ripped the air, carefully placed behind the anti-magic field generators it struck its target taking them down and seriously injuring two more soldiers.
“Keep running, I’ll slow them down.” The druid turned and threw down a handful of sharpened twigs to the ground.
“Sparn alwian!” he muttered as he drew shapes in the air causing the twigs to grow into viciously sharp thorns that covered the ground between them and the soldiers. Then he turned to follow the acolytes. Falcon looked back as he saw the soldiers reach the wicked barbs. The first of them screamed in pain as they could not avoid running into the thorns. Then the mechanicans caught up and their anti-magic fields dissolved the spikes to nothing.
Archers aimed high into the oak tree taking down the druid who had been so effective up until now. More arrows took out the other druid, as well as more acolytes until there was only Falcon left. He glanced back again seeking his friend Ysgarwn. Was he dead already? If not, could he be saved? Dozens of soldiers were moving across the landscape. Falcon knew that he had no option but to run and not stop until he was far away from this place. But then he realised he had to try and warn the rest of the circle. He could run at least as fast as any soldier, especially as they were stopping to shoot arrows at him. Luckily for him the cover of the trees, and his superior knowledge of the terrain meant he was able to get a clear lead.
Arriving at the main druid camp brought worse news. Roundhouses were ablaze, druids lay dead in the melting snow all around. The traitor Bract was among them. Damos lay a few feet away. None had been spared. As he darted from body to body he realised, to his horror that the elf ranger Aeschalos was also among the dead. He must have been visiting Damos. Falcon felt another sensation he had not felt before sadness. Falcon had nothing, no friends, no reason to continue his existence, only the few utilitarian, functional possessions that he had with him. He plucked a feather from one of Aeschalos’ arrows and put it in a small storage cavity in his chest. He found a backpack with some supplies including food he didn’t even need. He had his staff which acted as a druidic focus, and the druid robes he wore although he didn’t really need them either. He knew that the soldiers would still be tracking him. He had to get well away from here. West was the obvious direction. The soldiers had attacked from the east. But then, he reasoned, they would be drawn to the main town. There would be enough warriors to fight them off, but at what cost. He headed south.
Falcon had one advantage that gave him a real sense of hope. He knew all their tactics and techniques, but they knew none of his. He was built for stealth, it was wired into his very being. And yet, now, having become as one with these forests, he was more adept at hiding than any creature he knew about. He had lichen growing on parts of his scoured abraded exoskeleton. He wore a cloak made from fabric that was dyed using the actual plants surrounding him. Nettle green, soft and mottled. He also knew every nook and cranny of the forests. He knew hidden pathways that were used by deer and boar, where he could pass unfettered through the densest undergrowth silently and unhindered. Providing he could keep going for at least an hour without detection he would almost certainly be safe.
After what seemed like several hours, he decided to find somewhere to hide and take some rest. He climbed a gnarled old beech tree that had been coppiced many times before being left to itself. High in the branches, Falcon moved into a position where he was quite invisible from the ground. He had been extremely careful not to damage the bark of the tree or disturb any climbing plants. Not just because he wanted to preserve nature but also because such things were like a painted sign to a good tracker. As he lay invisible to anyone on the ground he watched as, to his horror, he saw Ysgarwn leading a party of Aeonian soldiers in search of him. Falcon almost cried out in anger and frustration. They had all suspected Bract, the surly young goodfolk. Yet all this time, the person he had thought was his best friend was the real traitor. Falcon had a reason to live. He swore that he would become the most powerful druid ever and one day he would find Ysgarwn and destroy him. For now, he had to keep quiet and escape.
Some months later, having escaped from the Aeonians, and travelling largely in disguise, Falcon made his way to the small town of Oliriond and the Kwrann Isles. He didn’t dare reveal his true identity but, by keeping his hood up, and not saying any more than he had to, he was able to pass for human. Somehow, he needed to find another druid circle that would take him in. For the time being, he would seek out adventuring work and try to keep out of trouble.
In the town square of Oliriond stands a large statue to the town’s patron goddess Gallobana, her three heads, represent her wisdom and her perceptiveness. She stands there to protect the town and the temple built in her honour. Behind her, the temple itself has a series of steps leading up to a row of columns in front of the great oaken doors. To the left on the square is the meeting hall and behind it the town hall where Maior Costi, a dwarf, attempts to run a town with at least two-thirds human population, a few dwarfs, and even fewer elves and goodfolk. Other races are either unknown or unwelcome here.
Opposite the temple is a row of shops including Cethi’s apothecary shop and a coffee shop owned by Maior Costi. To the right of the temple is the rather elegant but expensive Harlequin and Cask Inn, next to Vica’s bookshop. Overlooking the town is the keep which is at the highest point. The river estuary lies to the south of the town and flows west into the sea. Oliriond is the very last vestige of civilisation, if you can call it that, before you sail west into a seemingly endless ocean. It was, as far from Aeona as it is possible to be, both in geographical terms and also, arguably, in a socio-economic sense.
Falcon felt empty. He looked at the statue of the goddess and at the temple behind her. He had no right to pray to a deity. Deities were for organic sentient creatures, not machines, no matter how magically created. Yet he had nothing. He had not felt happiness or sadness either since his time in Tira Fawr. He wondered if the emotions still existed within him. At one time, he had been convinced that he had a soul. Now, he felt more uncertain than ever before.
Some unseen unsensed force drew him to walk up the steps. His druidic robes sweeping the worn and weathered stone, his hood hiding his true nature. He walked quietly towards the great marble altar at the front of the large open room. He had seen humans in Aeona supplicate themselves to deities in temples. Not often, but often enough. He knelt down and bowed his head. He tried to think of what words to say. ‘Oh mighty Gallobana, please help a poor machine to find purpose in life?’ it all seemed a bit stupid. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened, and Falcon wondered if he could just stay here kneeling before the goddess until he rusted and fell to pieces. It would be simpler for everyone.
“You seem troubled, child.”
Falcon turned. He knew the priest was named Galrean but nothing more. He kept his head deep in his hood. “I … don’t think there’s anything you or the goddess can do for me,” he admitted.
“Gallobana can help anyone who seeks her aid with an honest and pure soul.” Galrean assured him.
“I think I fall down on at least one of those prerequisites.”
“Are you dishonest?”
Falcon thought. He had heard that clerics were supposed to keep secrets about devotees to their gods. Perhaps if he were open and honest, then the lack of an actual soul might not be such a barrier. “I have to admit that while I have not lied, I have not been entirely open.” He glanced around to ensure that nobody else was in the temple and then pulled back his hood revealing his lichen covered metallic head.
If Galrean was surprised he hid it well. “You are perhaps the most unusual devotee to come before the goddess.”
“I don’t think I have a soul to be honest and pure with.”
“Well, I have a little test. Come with me.”
The cleric led Falcon to one side at the back of the temple. Here there was a carved relief of a face. It looked fierce, almost demonic. The mouth was carved out deeply, so that you could not see the back of it, just a black gaping hole.
“Anyone who places their hand in the mouth of the beast must possess an honest and pure soul.”
“What happens if they do not?” Falcon asked.
“The beast will bite the hand off.”
Falcon looked at the face. It reminded him vaguely of the commander of his unit back in Aeona. He wondered how much it would hurt to have his hand bitten off. He knew that he could feel pain. It was a built-in defence mechanism. Any creature which could not feel pain would not withdraw from it and could therefore be killed before they knew they were under attack. He clenched his jaw and thrust his hand into the hole. He held it there, eyes half closed in anticipation. Nothing happened. Time seemed to stretch out. After what seemed like an hour, Galrean said, “Gallobana has judged you to be in possession of an honest and pure soul.”
Falcon relaxed and his eyes glowed brightly. He felt happiness again for the first time since he was in the woods.
“Where are you staying?” Galrean asked.
“I’ve been sleeping in the woods outside the town.”
“It’s not the safest of places. Why don’t you stay here at the temple until you have got yourself established?”
“You have proved yourself worthy. Whatever you were in the past, in the here and now you are a creature of honest and pure soul, beloved of the goddess.”
“But, what if the people do not accept me?”
“Your secret is safe with me. Come, I will show you where you can stay.”
Falcon had a soul. That much was beyond question. He was safe, at least for now, from the Aeonian empire. But he still had a long way to go before he could avenge the druids and the elf ranger Aeschalos.