November 14, 794 - TR
The ghostly ruins of the town of Thorn surrounded Aerlin and Maraxus, speaking to them in whispers innumerable tales of woe. All around was a sense of idle calm, for nothing else moved or lived save for them and their horses. They peered into desolate buildings, but they were all vacant. Dishes lay set for dinner or breakfast, but were covered by cobwebs, unused.
As they drew nearer to the great spike in the ground, the Alabaster Monolith, things became queer. Aerlin stumbled in the night over a body laying face down in the mud. They stopped to examine it, and found the body to be very aged, and breathing...except that it was sucking in water and exhaling it.
Maraxus bent down to turn the body over, but it wouldn't bulge, though it seemed to be the body of a woman and he should have had no trouble with it. Aerlin too, tried to help, to no avail. The woman's body was warm to the touch as though she still lived, but was bound by a terrible enchantment.
"I cannot imagine what can have occurred here to do this," Maraxus said to Aerlin. "I fear we may find others like this." His prediction came true as they moved on, and they found others that were caught even in mid-stride and bound. It was odd to see those people, perched such that they should have fallen down, but were also aged and breathing. What's more, each one had a look of utter horror upon their face, as they knew something had happened and were in that primal instant were they were reacting, when they were bound in stasis.
Aerlin was nervous. She new she was close to learning more of the Wraith-kin, and was terrified that they would be found any moment. Maraxus, if he was feeling anything at all, gave no indication and pressed on.
"There's nothing we can do for these people to break the spell on them." As he spoke, Aerlin noticed a quiver in his throat. They had no right to be there.
Everything was bathed in the warm glow of the Alabaster Monolith as they stepped up to it. Aerlin put her hand to it, and the glow spread into her arm. She stepped back with a cry as if stung, cradling her arm, and sat on the ground.
"There's power there, full of life, yet despairing. A sadness, or a longing. I can't describe it, Max."
The earth began to groan, while the monolith's light began to softly pulsate. Screams and shrieks filled the air. Maraxus ripped his sword free and backed Aerlin to the monolith, facing outwards to defend them as the shrieks drew nearer.
A man's shape appeared out of the darkness, on the edge of the glow made by the monolith, so they could tell he was there but not identify him. Then the shrieks swept over them. Aerlin screamed as the wind ripped through her shirt and blood began to stain it.
Maraxus's sword whistled through the air, slashing at foes only he could see, or imagine. Mist flooded the valley, and faces appeared in the fog. Feral, yet vaguely human, they tumbled all around, bodies in the gentle darkness - swarming, screeching, tearing, and rending.
In pain though she was, Aerlin fought off her instinct to curl up into a ball and huddle on the ground crying. Instead, she pulled free the small dagger that Edgir had given her when she left Whayn-Fharh. She slashed at the air ineffectively, just as Maraxus was doing. Then he collapsed to the ground, badly wounded.
Words entered her mind, but whether they were whispered or not, she could not tell. Regardless, she began to say them, speaking more loudly as power infused her. Magic! It frightened her and delighted her at the same time, and she quite forgot about Maraxus.
"Come young one...aid usss and help usss..." The voice was seductive, giving her a thrill she could not describe. The wind no longer cut at her, but caressed her body as a lover might. Pulsing still brighter, the monolith's powers charged the mana already enveloping the area.
In the newest light, Aerlin saw them for the first time, the Wraith-kin. They were palest white, thin but muscular. Instead of eyes, they had voids of pitch black, the stark contrast standing out in a world now bathed monochrome. Each had fingers half again as long as their arms, tipped with razor sharp claws. To her, they moved very slowly, but in deliberate fashion, and their movemant was as a perfectly choreographed display of raw, unadulterated, murderous rage.
The rage was focused on Maraxus.
His body lay on the ground, shuddering from each blow the Wraith-kin struck. Blood splattered everywhere as he struggled to fight on, tears flowing from his eyes. But he was pinned down by two Wraith-kin who had driven their fingers as spikes through his shoulders and legs. Others rent his throat, killing him instantly. They tugged at his body, ripping chunks of flesh free and discarding them. One bent and tore part of his skull free, digging fingers within and pulling loose his brain, wrapped about its fingers like spaghetti on a fork.
Aerlin wretched in horror as this was done to her uncle, and the Wraith-kin ignored her completely. They swarmed all about him like a pack of wolves, filling the valley with their shrieks and howls. Still at the edge of light and dark was the figure of a man.
Wraith-kin were feasting, tearing and wrenching at the body of Maraxus. His entrails were spread all over, his ribcage pulled free and violated, and the mess of pieces was spreading. Then the power coursing through her body awoke something deep within Aerlin Stormcrow.
She was numb. No thoughts filled her mind, settled as it was in deepest calm. Already she had accepted that her strong uncle Max, the bodyguard of others before her, was beyond all salvation. Standing up, she turned her gaze with smoldering ferocity on the Wraith-kin nearest her.
Palms of hands before her, thought pierced the air, flaying the tendrils of essence from the wraith, much as skin from bone. And then it was gone. This made the other Wraith-kin aware of her once more, and they turned from their grim feast. She blasted one or two more before the power crept from her body once more, the energy spent.
At last, the figure stepped into the light and the Wraith-kin stopped, vanishing into the night. He was dressed in an ancient mode, recalling to Aerlin's mind the clothing worn by Gandalf, and in fact the man looked much like her father. He knelt at the little remaining of Maraxus's body, and spoke a few words she could not hear, then he turned to her.
"No one can save Max now, Aerlin." He stood and approached her. "I thought he wold be able to withstand them, but he was too old. This is not the time or place to speak of things. Would you help me bury him? The Wraith-kin will return shortly, for I hold only a little power over them."
Aerlin was too drained from her exertions. "I cannot. I haven't the strength to dig. Let us build for him a cairn, and consign his body to flame." She couldn't even question why the man knew who she or Maraxus was.
The man nodded, and they collected wood quickly as they were able. Thirty minutes later, Maraxus was burning, and Aerlin had said her goodbyes.
"Come, I know where we can be safe, Aerlin." She followed him to the monolith, and he traced a base of runes around to where it rose above the ground to form an arch. He muttered words she didn't understand, and the runes glowed pale green, and a portal appeared in the milky white monolith. He stepped through, and Aerlin hesitated a moment, but followed, fearing what lay before her less than the Wraith-kin who would surely return.