The Astrig Ka’a
19.004329 AC (After Construct)
Age of the Half-Orc War
The hail of arrows seemed to hang in the darkness above – vivid arcs of green flame tracing their paths from further upriver. Eyes heavenward, the party squinted against the driving rain when a jagged slash of light seared their vision. Thunder boomed so close as to feel like a mule kick to the chest. Deaf and blind they scrambled for cover.
D’avry slid hard into the mast, his pulse pounding as if to count down the seconds till impact. But even in that moment of chaos and horror, he could feel that overwhelming presence drawing down on them. Feel its power…its hate. Then the volley of arrows that had been lost in the blast, hammered the shoreline around them. Arrow split rock. Unholy fire bubbled below the surface of the surging river – And still, the craft stuck.
Less than an hour earlier…
The bull caribou’s head swung to the side, antlers whooshing gently as the scent of danger or…perhaps something else, drifted on the barely perceptible breeze. He listened intently. Water, like liquid light, streamed from the long white hairs beneath his muzzle. Something clodded clumsily away further down the trail from which they’d come.
The seven cows of his harem grazed idly, knee- and thigh-deep in the milky azure waters of a river he knew as a dot on a skein in a tapestry of pathways that was branded on his psyche or perhaps even deeper on some generational memory.
Wait, seven cows…?
A few yards away further downstream, the current tugged at D’avry’s haunches as it washed over a shallow section of cobble. His head buried in the water; he was single-mindedly focused on a clump of stringy river grass. He was amazed by the texture and the complexity of the flavors. How did he not know that grass could be this good? D’avry, raised his head from the soothing riffles of the high-mountain runoff to consider this experience when he sensed a change in the mood of his companions.
Suddenly alert, he scanned the herd to find the bull caribou staring directly at him.
Oh no, he thought. It’s happened again.
The pull. The compulsion had been at play.
How exactly did he get here? What was he doing with a herd of caribou? A jolt of panic broke the serenity of the moment as he strained to recall the moments leading up to this one.
Last he remembered there were…men…he was a man, not a caribou, and it was dark. The town…felt unfamiliar. And there was a dim alleyway. And it smelled putrid in the warm, breezeless inner recesses of what he recalled as a trading outpost along an overland route.
D’avry recalled he had been running. Before that there was gold. Not much. And silver. Quite a bit of silver and other bits too. He’d been winning. A lot. There’d been a sketchy-looking tavern he’d felt compelled to enter. Pulled as if by an undeniable force. And then he’d felt compelled to wager...and to drink. Things he did not often indulge in since he was barely of age to do such things in his homeland, but he did much of this, nonetheless.
He recalled a malty, porridge-like concoction that made his nose tingle. And then there had been winning followed by more winning until the smiles and laughter grew less and less and a darkness descended upon the faces around him with much the same force of presence as the stench that filled that final alleyway.
That’s when he’d run. Stumbling and clawing, leaping over unknown obstacles into further darkness, down narrow streets, and a multitude of narrow, seemingly exitless byways until he’d found the one alley. And then the compulsion called to him again. He was terrified to listen, but he knew that these things had an expiration date and as awful and daft and completely impractical as the compulsions were, they were always right. And they were never as expected.
Even as the sounds of pursuit drew closer, D’avry had stopped, picked up what appeared to be a semi-dried nugget of maybe, possum scat, and drew a barrel-sized circle on the wall. And, as bodies tumbled into the alley behind him brandishing cudgels and long-bladed daggers, he just, stepped through.
Glancing back through the blackness into a space only slightly less dim, something had caught his eye. In the darkest corner of that alley. Something was watching, something blacker than black, with searing red eyes.
D’avry felt the subtle shifting of the Astrig Ka’a and his footing failed him. He went down flailing. The last thing he saw was his now-human hand swinging wildly through the air before his head went underwater. Unimpressed, the bull and the other caribou cast their heads away and began to graze again as if nothing strange had occurred at all.
How he’d stepped through a wall as a human and then into a river as a caribou was unclear. What time had passed was also uncertain, but those details were quickly washed away by the frigid water, tumbling him like a dislodged chunk of flotsam.
He was uncertain what to do now. Other than, not drown and not freeze to death and not get washed downstream. Bobbing and splashing across the current toward the shore with its grapefruit-sized cobbles and intermittent patches of sand, he struggled to find traction enough to haul his soaking, thankfully human body from the current.
His normally blond shoulder-length hair was dark with moisture and plastered flat about his angular face. His similarly angular frame, hints of it just visible beneath his finely tailored but well-worn long-jacket, tunic, and trousers, all hung in a dark, muddled mess under the dim light of a dismally overcast sky.
As he climbed from the water onto the beach, each step squished slightly less than the last. He shivered and stumbled and slipped his way over the larger rocks. Around the few scattered boulders and between scraggly branches of what bushes remained with bits of moss and refuse worn like badges of honor from the last time the river had risen that high.
D’avry looked about him at the barest spit of flat land gathered here at the foot of an alpine forest. The tree line breaking abruptly up on both sides of the river formed the rugged notch of a long, J-shaped valley. Upstream, the river simply meandered away and out of sight. Further down it careened wildly left, tumbling over cottage-sized boulders, down and away into a thin, ghostly mist. The moist air echoed with the throaty thrum of what D’avry could tell was a meat grinder of a section of rapids.
In his estimation, there would be no exit upward from either bank. The mountains were too steep. Where he stood was most likely a portage if any trade moved through these waters, though, of that, he was skeptical. As it stood, he would have to choose either upstream or down or count on the compulsion to whisk him away elsewhere.
But that was not the way of the Astrig Ka’a, the Luck Magic. He had been brought here. From one place to another, for a purpose. Never his own, but a purpose, nonetheless. All that remained, he surmised, was to make do and let fate find him.
D’avry quieted his mind, silencing the discomfort of the cold. He made about the business of seeking a suitable place to light a small fire to dry his clothes and hopefully cook something for a morning meal - if he could catch it. Searching his person for any remnants of the previous night’s escapades he found nothing. Nothing, except a lone copper and apparently a seam to stitch in his inside left pocket… But that’s how the compulsion worked.
He would like to imagine that all those errant coins and gems had found their way into the pockets of orphans and widows, but reality rarely seemed to work that way. And the results of all the swirling eddies of cause and effect borne into existence by the Astrig Ka’ were quite remiss to reveal themselves.
D’avry had called it Luck Magic for he had no other name for it. He’d never heard of any such form of sorcery or enchantment. Even in all those texts, though he had not been looking for it then. He considered himself a poor kind of magician anyway. In fact, he had never really wanted to be a mage at all.
In his lands, the title Mage was more of a political term applied to those who dealt in the business of nations and interpreting the dreams of rulers or really bending the intentions of those rulers to whom they portended to say sooth. In fact, he had had another life entirely but then, that life and all the possibilities it held were as much a memory as his escapades of the night before. And held as much meaning when one was wet, cold, and hungry with no supplies or the vaguest idea of where one was.
Welcome to Druesday, he thought and forced the frigid muscles of his face into a slightly maniacal grin. Of all the things he didn’t have at the moment, knowledge of which day of the week it was, was the least of them. Druesday, Pinnick’s Day, Nander… meaningless. It was Lost-in-the-Middle-of-Nowhere’s Day at a quarter to Soaked and Starving as far as he was concerned.
A fledgling fire sputtered to life all on its own within a small, ash-filled circle of rocks. D’avry opened his eyes and seeing that it didn’t dwindle away, turned his attention to the copper he had unconsciously been worrying in his hand. Closer examination yielded nothing of interest.
It was plain, worn, made round from sixteen or so flat edges, and had a square hole in the middle. Markings were unimpressive but it was remarkably heavier than he had expected… but for all intents and purposes, it was tipping cash from some unknown principality. Likely it would not be exchanged in local trade other than accompanied by a great deal more of similar, more familiar coin. D’avry resisted the urge to draw back and huck it into the river. Instead, he bent over stiffly and placed it, precisely atop one of the larger half-buried stones of the fire circle.
He’d no less set it down than a flash of black and a whoosh of wings spirited it away with a caw and a click as a raven winged across the spit and continued away, north toward the river’s headwaters.
Well! That’s that, I guess. D’avry thought resignedly as his eyes strained to follow the quickly diminishing speck; his heart still pumping from the encounter. Nothing but the still dripping clothes on his back to show for his endeavors over the last few months’ time.
His kit, he’d lost running from brigands, who in turn were running from King’s Guard, who, in their own right, were little more than the thugs they pursued. His pony, Nesbit, lost to ogres who apparently didn’t know were only supposed to inhabit swamps.
His staff?!? Now that was a truly miserable thought. Taken by beavers! Beavers with a nearly impenetrable dam, so it would seem, thanks to the nascent properties of the enchanted jewel impressed upon the exquisitely carved handle of what had been his most prized possession. Among its many virtues, the staff had been especially good for walking with. Something he’d been doing a lot of lately…
He thought all of this, and his misery deepened. It was going to take some serious meditation to manage the quagmire of funk he now found himself wallowing in. By chance, D’avry glanced back the way of the thief-raven and caught a glimpse of light. Dimly. A barely perceptible twinkling in the muted gray of this most miserable morning.
What was it? A fairy in the middle distance? The last fading embers of a funeral pyre? Maybe an orc raiding party using the flaming corpse of a likely-weaponless farmer as a standard?
D’avry’s thin, not-quite-delicate features framed a frown. His cobalt eyes, tattooed dark along the lower rims in the way of his people, fixed on a space between himself and the offending light.
Standing erect, motionless as if to fool the trees themselves, only the fingers of his right hand moved, twitching in small, abrupt swishes and swirls at his side. And then, balling into a fist, they splayed out like water dousing a fire. And the fire, already struggling to summon heat from the ash pile it’d been summoned from, put up little resistance. The flames winked out, the beggarly warmth disappeared, and smoke tendrils grew slowly skyward. D’avry noticed this and his hand, still close by his side, twitched again. The tendrils slowly circled in tighter and tighter spirals until, in a pitiful poof, it was as if they never were.
A blast of cold air whipped up, causing him to shiver involuntarily, and spit out sand while blinking away grit through bleary eyes to see the concerning light more clearly. The wind had come from up valley and carried with it the faintest smell of…pork? Perhaps it was the workings of the Astrig Ka’a that caused his senses to be more highly tuned at times but even this seemed entirely unlikely.
However, D’avry felt a tug, but this time it was not a compulsion of the Luck Magic, it was his stomach which now remembered it was hungry. But it would have to wait.
Too often the unwary, looking for a meal, became one.
He smiled sourly, remembering the old monk who’d taught him that maxim. It was at the tail end of a week-long fast when he’d found himself hanging from his ankles in the forest, shaking stars from his vision and wondering why everything was upside down.
Again, his hand moved, this time sliding softly from side to side as if wiping away symbols in the sand. And, as he did so, he appeared more and more to be nothing but a lesser part of the greater forest.