Penitence

Into the Unknown

"Well? And then what, barkeep?"

"They vanished the same way they appeared in Tyddyn: suddenly and unexpectedly. Went into the heart of that cursed wood and never came back. Shame about that, after everything they did for us, but that forest takes what it will…"

-

The heroes of Tyddyn fought their way bravely through an ambush by craven barghests and hiked for hours into the wood before finding a nest of harpies, who mocked the interlopers. Parlaying with the bird-women, the heroes learned that the priests had indeed died unmercifully by their bloodied talons. What's more, they had not long ago seen Pamphilos traveling alone like a cursed man into the darkest heart of the wood. There, they said, dwelt the "Black Bird," some sort of harpy goddess also known as Kelaino, who ruled the forest and gave the harpies their most baleful songs.

Though the harpies tried to turn the heroes into their next banquet, the heroes resisted the bewitching melodies that the monsters sang and slew them so that they would harm no one else. Amid a pile of human remains and harpy filth, they found the unmistakable remains of several clergymen, Oleg included. The former lover of Yaroslava's stratega had been martyred.

With her task finished, Yaroslava informed the others that she would accompany them no further into the woods. Emil and Mao-Ying, along with Mao-Ying's bear companion, Lae'boo, ventured further into the forest, from which a torpid fog emerged. From the border of their perception, a black, predatory beast pounced upon them, a six-legged monstrosity from whose body, which rippled with muscle, erupted two long, barbed tentacles. Fighting fiercely to defend themselves, they managed to drive the beast away. In time, they came upon a single, ragged tent, in which slept an equally haggard-looking man who was nearly comatose from exhaustion and want of food and water. Mao-Ying recognized him as his quarry, Pamphilos, but the man was too delirious to say anything except some mystifying words about being watched and tormented. Mao-Ying hefted the man over his shoulder, and the group made haste to return to Tyddyn before the sun set.

Meanwhile, the mist had spread so far that it caught up to Yaroslava, who made a quick pace on her own back to civilization, albeit using some of the orienteering techniques picked up from the heathen, Mao-Ying. As the mist surrounded her, though, she began to realize that she was now walking in circles. As she stopped to get a grip on the situation, she became aware that she was not alone as she sensed a disturbance in the air directly behind her.

Turning slowly to face the interloper, she saw a wan, but imposingly regal figure: woman in a long, black gown whose train draped across the moist earth and which was made entirely from black feathers; her bare arms having a pallor reminiscent of the sky in early twilight. She stood almost expectantly with her hands folded over one another, but it was clear that her fingers trailed into sharp nails like the talons of a hawk. The upper half of her face was obscured by what appeared to be a dark mask made of two raven wings that emerged from her temples; covering her eyes, they swept back and up to merge indistinguishably with voluminously feathered black hair that looked like the plumage of a great crow. Her lips were blood red. Yaroslava dared to speak: "Kelaino?"

She did not deign to acknowledge the question and only spoke these inscrutable words: "Such a beautiful tragedy… to watch the burning sun fall into the deep, black sea."

When Yaroslava asked for the meaning of the words, mask of feathers over the entity's eyes drew back to reveal wide, circular eyes with a bright, but sickly yellow iris filling the area around a pitch black pupil. Like the eyes of a raven, they stared intently, but distantly through Yaroslava's. In an instant, her form erupted into a swarm of crows that assailed Yaroslava, pecking and scratching relentlessly. No help came as she screamed into the empty forest and collapsed under the assault, their cacophonous cawing cloying at her mind and their talons clawing at her exposed skin.

Things were little better for Mao-Ying and Emil, who were now realizing that they were hopelessly lost, as every attempt to gain their proper bearings only seemed to lead them fruitlessly back into an impossible loop. Nevertheless, they chose to press on, their dwindling bundle of torches mirroring their diminishing hopes to escape this befuddling fog. While Emil's strength of conviction pushed him through the night, Mao-Ying—despite his great strength—collapsed to the ground. While the giant commanded his bear companion to leave him behind, the loyal creature refused, disobediently staying at his side. Emil nearly stayed standing before the first light of dawn, but exhaustion eventually took him, as well.

During the night, Mao-Ying awoke from his exhaustion to the sound of growls and roars in the black, foggy night that surrounded him. It was no doubt Lae'boo fighting some predatory lurker, but in an instant, the sounds of battle ceased. He looked to the body of Pamphilos, whose outline was barely visible to his bleary eyes, and watched as a barbed tentacle emerged from the inky mist, rolling the mercifully unconscious man's body towards its salivating maw. The sound of rending flesh and cracking bone foretold what would come to him soon after.

Something woke Emil from his exhausted stupor, and he could see the long, black train of a gown trailing the earth before him. With what little strength he had left, he defiantly held up his shield with the holy symbol of his faith emblazoned on its surface. The figure before him spoke with a haunting melancholy: "It will not save you now…"

As the figure glided across the earth away from him, other creatures emerged from the mist: dark, predatory beasts with teeth fit for rending flesh.

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Pechorin

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