Lacey Darkwater, a fisherman’s daughter, her world is nothing but questions. Alone and on her way home, she makes one small decision that changes her life forever.

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1. Darkwood
Chapter 1 DarkwoodSide Ho!” - The big man bellowed as he raced past me, his coach loaded down with anything imaginable. He could’ve been hauling carrots or carrying gold. On the North Road, caravans traveled regularly and you never knew what were the contents of the mammoth wagons. For three days now the caravan drivers had been shouting at me. I have yet to understand why. You could feel a caravan coming for miles, then hear it roaring down on you and finally smell it coming. If all that swayed no person from moving out-of-the-way, what makes them think screaming “Side Ho” would? From each caravan, I have also heard every possible form of profanity and disparaging remark screamed over the noise of the carts passing. I guess they have never seen a woman walking alone on the North Road. Though I find it impossible that everyone but me owns a horse or has the coin to book passage on the convoys headed to greater profits. Caravans were wonderful when I was young. Living in a small town like Overwatch, the caravans were both a lifeline and our only break to the boredom of settlement living. Caravans that rolled into town would bring all sorts of new sights and smells and wonderful treats to try. Often loaded with new foods, such as Chark, which is a wonderful deer jerky from the Sapphire Dwarves of Kinghold. Or sometimes they had this flatbread with all kinds of spices in it, which came from the City of Silver. Although I don’t know how that’s possible, as the Elven city closed to outsiders before my birth. But my favorite came all the way from the Tinker gnomes across the mountains and into the great forest. It was a wonderful treat. The cookie was soft and had cinnamon in it. Though we rarely got more than one, I know I could have eaten a hundred in a single sitting. The best the caravans brought were the Songweavers. The Songweavers who would bring us tales of the outside world far beyond our tiny little hamlet they would sing beautiful songs about warriors and heroes and lovely elf maidens. They would spin stories about great dragons or wars and even the dark elves of the underworld. My favorite story I only heard twice from two separate Songweavers so each version was a little different. But it was the story of the nine gifts from the gods given to the first nine tribes, before the Devastation when humankind was just a speck on this continent. I remember the story well, although some details are a little fuzzy. The story goes that nine tribes were on Xenkur. The human Wolf clan, the Gold and Silver elves, the Ruby and Sapphire Dwarves, the Halfling tribe, the Rock and Tinker gnomes, and the Orc Blood tribe. The gods gave each tribal leader a special magical gift. I don’t remember what gift went to every tribe. I remember the Silver elves received a crown worn on the head of the leader and the Ruby dwarves, a shield. The other gifts were a sword, armor, robe, a staff, book an amulet and a belt. It's the stories, I think, that caused me to want to leave home and venture out to find something other than our tiny little town with petty little people. What were fond memories as a kid of the caravans rolling into town is now nothing more than a pain in my backside as I slog down this lonely road. Now the caravans are a long thunderous barrage of flinging curses, flying mud and hurling horse droppings. Another shout of “Side Ho” and I was back from my musing. I’d be glad when done with this road, but I still had at least three more days to walk until I reached my hometown of Overwatch. I’m tired of walking, tired of the cold and I’m tired of the North Road. I wanted a hot meal and warm bed and someone to wash the mud, horse dung and whatever else this road kicked up on me out of my clothes. It was getting late and it was getting dark I felt I should try to find a place to hole up for the night. I’d done well so far, to avoid any problems on the road. When I made camp, I would stay only on the edges of the forest as close to the road as possible. You see, the North Road cut through Darkwood, woods so thick it cuts out all but the strongest of sunlight. However, the name didn’t come from the density of the trees its name came from what walked through the forest. The story goes the woods are full of the undead, spirits, and ghosts and all manner of evil. I’m not sure the stories are true, but, just to be on the safe side, I would camp close to the road and light a large fire. I felt uncomfortable at night and I would hear a twig snap or a strange moan and my imagination would run away, but I saw nothing I called a ghost. This evening did not differ from the other nights I had spent on the road. Two caravans went by throughout the darkness. I would sleep for an hour or two and then wake up and stoke the fire go back to sleep for two hours and that would continue until the sun came up. It was colder, probably because it was farther into the forest and the trees kept it cold at night. This may have also contributed to the strange dream I had. I remember no great deal of the dream, but I remember that I meet a dwarf or maybe it was a gnome in the forest. I’ve always believed dreams were just the way your mind sorts through whatever it's collected during the day, though I have met no dwarf or gnome on my travels. Garvin, a wizard at the Academy, who would talk about dreams, said that dreams are a warning of what will happen. But then again, Garvin was a little bit out there on the pole, some of his ideas were just too hard to swallow. Tonight’s fire was blazing and the warmth of it felt good on my face. I’d choked down bitter-cake and washed it down with the last of my water. I sat there, chilled in some parts of my body and hot in others. That was the role of a fire, part of you is too hot and the rest frozen to the bone. So I rested there. Tired and cold, staring at the newly gained spell which appeared this time on my right forearm. Lightly rubbing my forearm, the tattooed magical energies still stung a little if I touched it. I still marvel and yet don’t understand the way magic works. It seems a simple course: learn a few words of magic, practice hand gestures, maybe learn how to use a trinket or fetish if the spell needs one and something simple becomes something incredible. I did not mind the mystical energies of various spells branded on your skin much like a tattoo. What bothered me was you never know where the spell will appear. What if the secret symbols appeared somewhere on your face. You’re branded as a spellcaster the minute somebody sees you. I don’t think that would be good. I’ve always thought the best way to survive this world is anonymity. I have three spells tattooed on me. A better way to say it is they are burned into me. When a caster studies and learns a spell, the energies used are emblazoned on the caster’s body much like a tattoo. The more magic you learn, the more tattoos on your body. At some point, you run out of skin and you can’t learn any more spells. The first invocation I learned when I reached the Academy was a spell of levitation and it appeared on my left shoulder. The spell of levitation is easy to learn. It has only a few secret words and just three hand symbols and there’s no trinket or fetish for it. It only floats me about six inches off the ground, but I think it could be a handy little spell. The second I learned was how to read magical writing. That tattoo appeared on the back of my right thigh. The third I learned and the one I gained right before leaving the Academy is a powerhouse. I learned how to form and project a lightning bolt out of thin air. It's a complicated spell needing several hand movements and magical phrases. It also needs the use of a thin piece of silver almost the size of a needle. That tattoo appeared on my right forearm and still almost a week later is sensitive to the touch. A caravan races by and shatters me out of my reminiscent trance and back to reality. The chill ran further into my bones so I put another log on the fire. Tired, need to get some sleep and would love a hot meal. ✼✼✼✼ I awake early; the sun is just peeking over the horizon. What woke me up? It's not an owl or a coyote, sounds like a mix of the two, strange low crooning that almost sounds like a wailing. A part of me wants to just follow the sound and moving around would take the chill out of my bones, stretch my muscles, but the sound is coming from inside Darkwood. The sun is streaming its life-giving face over the horizon and into my campsite now. I can explore the forest during the day; nothing could happen during the day. I will take a lit torch just in case. Even though it's daylight, it appears murky inside Darkwood. The leaves crunch beneath my boots. I snap a twig, I break a branch, I’m probably making as much noise coming through the forest as the caravans do on the North Road. All the while that sound never gets louder or quieter. It feels like I never get close enough to change the volume of the sound. The forest feels claustrophobic; the darkness feels like it's all around me, sending a chill down my spine. Or is it the cold or whatever’s making that noise? I’m afraid to go further, but what is that sound? I don’t understand why a sound would be so interesting. It’s calling me. That’s not the right way to put it. It’s almost like it's whispering. I realize it is stupid to chase this unknown into the middle of Darkwood. This is the story you would hear from a SongWeaver and at the end the storyteller would say “…and she died.” The further I go chasing the noise the more I know this is a bad idea. Now the Darkwood has added a scent ingredient to my wandering. I have smelled that before. That’s the odor of death. I assume ghosts don’t smell so it's probably just a dead animal. That’s the problem with death. It all stinks the same, whether a hunter returning with a deer or the slaughterhouse in Overwatch, it's the same odor. The gods would’ve done us a favor if they made everything smell differently when dead. If that were true, you’d know whether to search or not. Scents’ getting intense now. Still, that noise doesn’t change. It must be right around here somewhere. There are no birds in the sky overhead so whatever’s dead has been gone for a while. Peering over a large log downed ages ago, I see what is producing the fumes, but it is not an animal. Animals don’t wear clothing. It’s a young small human or maybe an elf. It would help to know what killed this person, but it just reeks too much to search. Anyway, it has been here a while. There’s little left but bones, garments and a satchel. I don’t recognize the clothing. The chemise is a light blue color and the pantaloons are white. I don’t know who would be wandering around Darkwood in these colors. It isn’t someone who's a woodcutter or a hunter. They wear colors that blend into the forest; this color stands out brightly. It looks like formal wear. Now I’m not a big fan of robbing the dead, but there might be something useful in that satchel. “The gods have mercy on me,” as I lean over to pull the satchel from the arm of the corpse. It would be a better idea to search its contents by the safety of my campfire. The strange sound keeps on but I’m not going any further, my torch is burning out and it is so dark under these trees it would be wise to head back to the campfire. As I make my way back to my fire, the strange sound fades. Was it the ghost of that dead person leading me to it? Leading me to find this satchel? I chalk that idea up to lack of sleep and shoddy food rations. “Hard, chilly one this day.” My head spins toward the fire. Fear rises in my throat. Thoughts sprint through my mind of being high-jacked, ripped apart, raped, thoughts so horrible, I shake my head to clear them. I feel my stomach turn over and I sense vomit. I see a small man sitting by the fire enjoying the last of my food. Leaning back on a log, he is relaxed, at ease with his surroundings and my approach. He looks as if he could be someone’s grandpa. From the way he’s dressed—brown wool britches, laced boots up to his knees, a brown leather vest bloated with every possible tool, belts crossed his waist and an uncountable number of pouches and bags lining his belly. And every manner of gadget hung from his belts. It's clear that he’s a Tinker Gnome. The blacksmith Beror that lives in Overwatch dresses the same way. These two men could be twins. I wonder “Do all Tinkers look alike?” Shocked and stunned I didn’t know what to say. I’m sure I looked silly just standing there with my mouth open. I mean I had seen no one walking on the road or even riding a horse until right this moment. I’m familiar with caravans going by but no one ever stopped. I immediately looked around for a cart with a broken wheel or a lame horse but saw nothing. “Me names Penker Tuboniss Coldlock, Son of Clenkkat, Heir of the Green Tinker Clan, but you can call me Penn”, I’d felt I’d find you here.

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