Four figures rode tall atop their horses, backs to the cooling breeze, a growing shadow creeping along the canyon walls. They descended into Uqim, one of the larger canyons marking the landscape of Arja’fet, the Red Lands of Nillin. High walls of reddish-orange sandstone grew darker as they obscured the setting sun.
A loose mixture of soil and sand softened the clops of the horses’ hooves, though there was no need for quiet entry. Tonight, they were merely investigating a disturbance coming from a small thorp of Dwarves living within the Formir Forest in the base of the canyon. Onward they rode, pattering of sand and whistling wind covering up the promise of lush green below.
One of the riders removed his hood to reveal a long, wild mane of black and white hair, thick and sleek. Charcoal-colored skin and honey-dripped eyes stared down into the heart of Uqim as the line of shadow passed over him. He gave a bellowing and joyous laugh, baring his small tusks as he prodded his horse into a gallop.
“Aye, do you think that ‘e had t’ do that?” said one of his companions over the soft echo of wind whipping against the canyon walls. “We were goin’ to reach the edge of Formir ‘fore nightfall anyway? Why’s he all in a huff all of a sudden?”
Another figure removed her hood with a smooth flourish, revealing a deep brown face with brilliant white tusks, almost glowing amidst the darkened reds of the sandstone. She replied with a soft but hearty chuckle, “K’oskk is always chasing the sun, he won’t let it beat him down!” She paused before yelling as the winds began to pick up, “He has his head up in the clouds of Koviodura so often he rarely gets to be down and out in the wilds.”
“We best go after him then,” rumbled the fourth rider, sound almost vibrating off of the walls. This one’s hood fell forward with another burst of wind, revealing a large, imposing orc on a hulking, chestnut warhorse.
“Alright then Jir’a, we follow your lead,” nodded the hooded figure in gold-trimmed, slate-gray robes. The orc patted him on his small, dense shoulders and thundered forward. The shrouded one, after a few choice oaths, gestured to Jir’a, “Well, ‘t least I’m waiting for you.”
Jir’a, the female Drük, gave a loud shout as she thundered forward to catch up to K’oskk, the dwarf close behind. With only an hour left until sunset, it was probably best, she realized, to reach the forest sooner to survey for a comfortable spot to make camp.
Riding down the valley slopes, only the pounding of hooves on sand and the whistling of wind punctured the quiet evening air. Well, except when K’oskk would laugh as he burst through the rapidly advancing shadow and into the light of the sun. K’oskk no longer had many opportunities to ride the canyons, buttes, and cliffs of the Red Lands. As a teenager he rode with the Ravens, a Drük-led team of adventurers, protectors of the wilds surrounding Koviodura.
A massive, ringed and tiered city atop the slumbering volcano of Kam’ek, Koviodura was the jewel of Drük society. Through fame and mighty deed, K’ossk rose rapidly through positions of prominence within the city, even attaining the rank of Watchmaster of the entire stronghold. However, he took up the post out of necessity and badgering by his fellow watchmen to lead and protect.
He enjoyed the freedom of Arja’fet all the more since his youth, where the sun always shone on his head instead of the magically lit interiors of the Citadel.
Sand and gravel gave way to blades of grass, growing thicker until a deep verdant expanse met their eyes. The Formir Forest was upon them. The riders dismounted and walked their horses into the silent grove.
“Let’s make camp about an hour in, there’s a stream not too far that will do us all some good,” said the large orc. Jir’a and K’oskk nodded in agreement.
They found their way soon enough to a small clearing with a brook where the horses could drink. Apart from the soft hooting of the evening owls and a small, rustling breeze, the four friends were alone in the dim moonlight.
The smell of cooling trees and fresh air tempered the rush of riding down the arid canyon for hours. K’oskk, wanting to stretch for a bit, gathered some branches from the forest, and returned with enough kindling for a decent fire between his scarred arms.
The dwarf muttered some words beneath his breath and flicked his stout wrist, and a fire roared to life, casting dancing shadows on the surrounding trees. With a grunt, he removed his hood and sat down next to his pack in front of the blaze, determined to keep warm with the cooling night upon them.
“It feels good to be out here again. You can just feel the life all around you!” exclaimed K’oskk, stretching out his muscled frame, a big man even for a Drük.
“Yes,” nodded Jir’a in agreement. “We’ve all come a long way since running with the Ravens, haven’t we?” A small silence lingered in the dusky air as their eyes met.
“Aye, it’s just lovely ain’t it?” the Dwarf piped up. “Now that that’s out of the way, Hesek shouldn’t be more than half a day from here the way I see’t. Best get some rest so I can get back to me Citadel as fast as possible.”
“You and your damn Citadel, Bogum,” said the Orc as he shook his meaty head. “K’oskk’s right, out here is living. In there, it’s nothing but dead words and dead air.”
“Says you! You have no appreciation for the wonders, the culture of our great city, Uk’od!” scoffed Bogum in a huff.
“Aye, maybe because the dead in Arja’fet have no culture to call their own?” Uk’od laughed grimly as he fidgeted with a beaded bracelet bearing the emblem of a bony hand clutching a pair of scales, briefly glowing as an ember crackled near the towering being.
Jir’a and K’oskk laughed and drank at the exchange. The four of them had all been Ravens, but gone off their separate ways, and it was good to see how some things never changed between them.
All of them, even stuffy Bogum, wanted to get away from the stronghold from time-to-time. In fact, this very sentiment led to the reformation of this flock for the mission at hand. For it was not often that the Watchmaster, the Morning Mistress, the Gravedigger, and the Shroud saw each other, let alone united for a quest.
With the flicker of the firelight and the embers crackling, the four continued to eat their supper in a contented silence. That’s when K’oskk knew they weren’t alone. The owls, who’d been cheerful sentinels not an hour before, had gone quiet. He turned around to face the dark, and Jir’a gave him a peculiar glance as she continued on with her meal.
Intently, K’oskk stared into the forest. And the forest stared back with sickly, yellow eyes.
From The Tales of the Red Lands, Volume 1, by Grog’on Inkwell