Hi everyone! Apologies for the lack of a page this week! But don’t worry — we’ve got more than this adorable image of Quin and Dak snoozin’ to help tide you over until next week.
Back in 2012 (yes, just about when we began publishing Western Deep online) I wrote a short story about Quin and Dak’s first “real” adventure in the Western Deep, involving a quest for elderberry wine that becomes quite a bit more involved than a simple walk to the vineyard.
This is simply part 1 — keep in mind that despite some edits, this is still a five year old story at heart. Because of that, I’m going to hold off on posting additional parts (yes, parts — it’s a bit long!) until I’ve had a chance to really dive in and clean them up.
All that said, please enjoy!
THE MERIDIAN TRAIL (PART I)
It was an unassuming place – a glen, just a few hundred strides from the edge of the city. The sun was breaking through the conifers in scattered slats, sending shafts of light onto the ground in bizarre patterns, both straight and random at once.
In the middle of this glen was a large stone folly – circular in structure with a domed top and an open center. Some of the cityfolk went so far as to call it a shrine, but the king frowned upon that definition. There were no shrines in Terria – the whole forest was the shrine, each tree a pillar holding it up.
No, this large stone folly was little more than a curiosity these days. The children loved to play around it because the tall stone supports and the open interior gave them ample space to climb and explore.
The young tamian had arrived early – his friend was on the way. Still, he was compelled to explore, to take in these sights and sounds. Rarely did he find time to venture outside the city on his own, even to a place as close as this to its border. These days, such things were rare gifts.
The interior floor of the domed structure was smooth stone, worn by hundreds, if not thousands of years of feet padding over it. Dead leaves and pine nettles were scattered to and fro in clumps, collecting around the low walls and banisters surrounding the perimeter of the folly. Had the tamian been blessed with the imagination of his youth, this folly would have been some ancient civilization, some secret portal, or a kingdom to conquer.
Quinlan sighed. Not since the days of his childhood had he been able to concoct such elaborate fantasies. Now his world was running short on fantasy, replaced by the day-to-day concerns of his people. His own grandfather ended his childhood early, sending him to train with the other tamian soldiers while his friends went off to conquer imaginary kingdoms. The scout sat up onto one of the old stone banisters and balanced himself with a paw.
This is my life now. Another sigh.
The tamian looked up with a start and realized the voice was coming from behind him. Quinlan kicked his legs over the banister, spinning around in place, then hopped off onto the ground. “Dakkan. How fares?”
The lutren soldier, a few seasons older than Quinlan, was walking through the trees into the clearing, his walking staff pushing aside a few errant shrubs as he did so. “Eh. Dad has me wearing this new uniform. This one’s got a bunch ‘a heavy plate things.” He grabbed a pawful of the lamellar he was wearing and held it out, glancing down at it with disgust. “Not too excited luggin’ this around all the time.”
“I think it looks fine,” Quin said with a grin, immediately followed by a barely audible snrrk sound. He wasn’t laughing at the uniform – but the helmet. It was not only too large, but the design was markedly older than the uniform, classic and modern lutren styles clashing. “I take it your father also gave you that helmet?”
Dakkan rolled his eyes and pulled it off his head. “Family heirloom. Supposed to bring luck.” He grunted. “If ya ask me, I think the reason it’s been sittin’ on a shelf in our den all these seasons is ‘cuz nobody wants to wear a glorified boilin’ pot on their head.”
The two of them laughed a bit, and the lutren tucked the helmet under his arm as he finally got a good look at the glen. “Hey, think I remember this place!”
Quin sighed once more and leaned up against the stone banister of the folly. “We played here when we were little.”
Dakkan nodded slowly as he looked around, taking it all in. “Aye, been a long time. Amazing how things change, yeah?” He walked over to Quin and set the helmet down on the banister, then leaned against it as well. “So, dad gave me a briefing. A brief briefing, true to form.”
“True to form, indeed.” Quin grinned – Kenosh never said more than he had to. It made him appear cold and calculating. It was a reputation that he had fostered over his entire life, and one he rarely deviated from – even with his own son.
“So?” Dakkan shrugged. “Why’s my dad stayin’ in Terria? Where are we going?”
Quinlan nodded a couple times as he collected his thoughts. “Well, Kenosh and King Dabheid have some business to discuss. You know, important things.” He waved a paw back and forth between the two of them. “What we’re supposed to do is head up to the Meridian Vineyard and get a bottle of their elderberry wine.”
“Wine?” Dakkan wrinkled his nose. “That’s why I had to travel two days up from Lutra? For wine?”
“Not just any wine,” Quin held up a claw to clarify. “This is the king’s favorite wine, and he wants us to get a bottle to offer to your father, who will then give it to your queen as a gift.”
“So we’re not only spending today walking through the wilds of the Western Deep to get a bottle of wine, but if anything happens to it en route, we’ll be in hot water with your king and my queen?”
“And your father, and my grandfather,” Quin said, his face deadly serious. “Really, the weight of all the Four Kingdoms is upon us.”
Dakkan grunted in good humor as he pushed himself off the stone banister. After a second, he retrieved the helmet. “Honestly, I think both of us are more scared of tickin’ off our parents than royalty.”
Quinlan was despondent for a moment – whenever his friend brought up the “P” word as a plural, he knew it was not only a mistake on the lutren’s part, but one the both of them would end up regretting. Dakkan’s mother had passed away when they were both still very young, and Quinlan’s parents had both been killed in a fire when he was young. For all intents and purposes, they had no parents – they each had a “parent”, and in both their cases, that parent was too busy trying to turn their charges into suitable replacements to really parent at all. And so Quinlan and Dakkan had befriended one another at an early age, finding solace and appreciation in one another’s company. No better friendship existed anywhere in Sunsgrove.
The two seemed to finish their thoughts at the same time. Dakkan sighed and sheepishly shook his head. “Sorry, Quin… I keep forgetting-…”
“No, no, it’s all right.” He waved a dismissive paw. “Not a whole lot that can be done about it now.” Quinlan gestured across the clearing. “We’ve got a ways to walk. We should get going.”
There was little doubt as to why the tamian of old picked the Western Deep as the center of their civilization, for it was by far the most diverse and beautiful woodland along the entire kingdom’s coastline. Clearings pockmarked with ancient follies gave way to monolithic byways of towering pines so tall that one might be excused for thinking they scraped the clouds into the sky.
The Western Deep did indeed have what one might call “ordinary” shrubs and trees, but that was not what made the Deep a holy place. The main pathways between Tamian villages that surrounded the capital of Terria were wide open, verdant green, with their sentinel-like trees guarding the forests’ edge on both sides. All pathways were well-kept by an order of tamian clerics, and protected from bandits by the tamian scouts. Unfortunately for Quinlan and Dakkan, the scouts seemed to be elsewhere this day.
Dakkan noticed it first – they had just emerged from the more dense areas of the forest onto the green path (a shortcut that Quin had suggested) and saw it stretching far before them, lazily turning left several hundred paces ahead.
“Looks like a quiet day,” Dakkan said.
They walked a little ways further, but Quinlan slowly drifted to a standstill. He looked around idly, making Dakkan nervous.
“Nah,” the tamian dismissed his friend with a shake of his head. “Just… I don’t know, usually Samson and Kera are patrolling this area around this time of day.” The two tamian guards were not known for slacking off their duties.
The lutren merely shrugged. “The two lovebirds, right?” After a moment of thought, he chuckled and waved a paw around him at the expanse of foliage. “I’m sure they’re out frolickin’ in a meadow somewhere. It’s not like there’s a shortage of ‘em around here.”
Quin couldn’t help but grin at the idea of the two relatively business-like guards skipping through a meadow, paw in paw. Still, it was unlikely they would abandon their posts. The grin was quick to fall into a sigh. “Unfortunately, I doubt that’s the case. Let’s keep going, maybe they’re around the bend.”
Several minutes passed, and even with several turns in the path behind them, Samson and Kera were still nowhere to be found.
“This is strange,” Dakkan finally admitted. “I’ve walked these paths a few times and there’s always been somebody keepin’ an eye on things.”
“Yeah,” Quinlan nodded a few times and considered the split paths ahead. One led to the north, to the Meridian Vineyard, and another led east, into the Eastern Deep and then the flatlands and deserts of Navran. Quinlan had never traveled down that path – that was a path for dignitaries and travelers, and he was neither. In a way, it represented the sad fact that he was never meant to leave the forests of Sunsgrove – that there was a wide world out there, but it wanted nothing to do with him. Quinlan was just fine with that – he preferred the known, the expected, the anticipated. He turned his gaze back to his friend. “If something had happened, they would have sent word. Somebody-…”
“Quin, look!” Dakkan pointed ahead, the fearful expression on his face told the scout that whatever lay ahead of them was deadly serious.
It was Kera – but something was amiss. She was lying face-down in the middle of the forest path, blood pooled around her.
“Sharkspawn-!” Dakkan sprinted over to Kera’s fallen form with Quinlan close behind, but whoever or whatever had taken her life was long gone.
“Oh no… no, no…” Quinlan knelt at her side, his breath coming in progressively shorter, shallower gasps. He reached out to check her pulse, but drew his paw back quickly — she was ice cold. “How… how did…?”
The lutren soldier was even more shocked than his friend, standing pale-faced and quiet nearby. Quinlan was actually surprised Dakkan was able to stand within eyesight of the scene, as he had a nearly-phobic repulsion to the sight of blood, often developing a debilitating case of the shakes until he was clear of the scene. The only way the lutren seemed to be handling himself was by turning fully away from the grim tableau, paw to his forehead, trying to calm himself down.
Despite the grisly scene and Quinlan’s shock at Kera’s demise, it only took a few moments for the scout within Quinlan to surface – by now it was pure instinct. His grandfather had drilled that much into him since his parents died. Quin fought for control over his staccato gasps, took in a deep breath, and slowly let it out. He looked over the scene of the crime “Dak, whoever did this… it wasn’t long ago.” He turned to his friend. “Samson must’ve been here, too.”
The lutren released his breath in a huff. He had been holding it for an inordinate period of time. He nodded to Kera’s body. “Those’re… sword wounds. Do you think Samson’s the one who-?”
“Maybe?” Quin stood up and looked to the left, into a mess of foliage. There were footprints — but more than one pair. “I think… whoever did this took Samson with them.” He squinted and could see blood on the leaves of the nearby shrubs. “One of them was wounded.”
Dakkan tightened his grip on the walking staff. “We need to find him.”
The scout looked up, surprised. “What? You… ah, what do you mean?”
“I mean we find Samson.” Dakkan was resolute.
Quinlan stood up shakily, obviously not too thrilled with the idea. “And what about Kera? We just… we leave her here? And the killer, the killer’s out there, too. What do we do if… when we find them?”
“Then we do what we’re both trained for, Quin. C’mon.” He sounded agitated at Quin’s reticence, leveling a stern claw at his friend. “If we run back to Terria for help, whoever did this could get away. If they hurt Samson because we didn’t stand up and fight, what will you do then?” His eyes, somewhat manic, obsessive, pierced Quinlan’s own. “We don’t have a choice, Quin. Samson’s out there somewhere, and he might die if we don’t do anything. We have to stop whoever did this, and we have to do it on our own.”
There was a moment of silence on the path as Quinlan considered the situation. His friend, hot headed as he may be, was absolutely correct – Samson’s life may be in danger, and Kera was beyond help.
The scout drew his blade and held it loosely in his right paw. “All right… all right, we’ll follow the path.”
“Right.” Dakkan nodded sharply and followed his friend as he walked off the forest path.
And so the two friends once again entered the untamed wilds of the Western Deep…