Story concept: Erith Arwen

Written by: Erith Arwen and Eyas Stormwolf

© Erith Arwen and Eyas Stormwolf



Nowhere else she had travelled on Eternia seemed as sinister to Teela as the Vile Marsh. The thickening mist was gradually consuming the afternoon sunlight, and the eeriness was affecting all the riders. Teela almost regretted begging her father to allow her to join the cadets on this training expedition. She remembered how Man-At-Arms had stared at her in stunned silence when she had asked. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the comfort of the palace seemed infinitely more preferable to camping in the miserable swamp.

Teelaís horse stumbled, jolting her forwards. Teela reacted instantly, and gripped the saddle firmly as her steed regained its footing. She leaned over the horse's neck, and muttered wordlessly in its ear. Soothed by the sound of Teela's voice, the horse moved ahead more confidently.

Man-At-Arms rode up beside his daughter. "Are you alright?" he asked.

Teela nodded and looked away. She wished Man-At-Arms would refrain from asking after her welfare in front of the trainees. It embarrassed her.

The rider ahead of Teela turned slightly, looking back over his shoulder. "Sheís probably tired," he remarked. "She needs her feather bed and a hot bath."

Teela glared back. "It's you who needs a bath, Emel," she retorted sharply.

"Quiet, both of you," ordered Man-At-Arms. Emel turned away, concentrating once again on his riding.

"We will be stopping to make camp soon," said Man-At-Arms.

"Donít stop on my account," Teela muttered, her angry stare never leaving Emel's back. Suddenly she spurred her horse forwards, riding to the head of the column. Man-at-Arms looked after her in surprise.

"What has got into the girl?" he questioned, looking at Fisto. Fisto shrugged and did not reply. The problem was a simple one, yet one that neither Man-At-Arms nor he had ever had to face. Teela longed for acceptance among the other cadets, but it eluded her constantly. The only girl in the squad, Teela was as skilled as any of the young men with sword and bow, and her riding ability already equalled Fisto's, but that was evidently not enough. At twelve years old, Teela was five years the junior of the squad's youngest member. Many of the lads believed that as a girl she ought not be trained in the manly arts of war, and they felt that her place among them was not earned, but simply the wish of Man-At-Arms.

The warrior cadets never voiced their opinions to Man-At-Arms directly, but Fisto knew his companion had overheard complaints within the squad on several occasions. News that Teela would be joining the training expedition to the Vile Marsh had been received incredulously by the boys. And Teela did not help matters. She was prone to react badly to jibes from Emel and his friends; often failing to control her quick temper. She had challenged Emel to a fight once, and had become even more furious when he had laughed at her. Teela worked tirelessly to be the best she could be, but still the recognition by her peers never came. Perhaps they were jealous of her uncanny knack of being able to duplicate everything she was shown perfectly. Fisto doubted the lads in the squad realised the extent of her talent, but Man-At-Arms and he had seen it. Teela did more than simply absorb and learn - she adapted every fighting technique into her own style. The girl was extraordinary. But she was still a girl. Fisto sighed. He would have to talk to Man-At-Arms. He resolved to broach the subject once they had set up camp for the night.

Teela urged her horse to keep ahead. She didnít want anyone to see the tears of frustration and anger that were threatening to run down her face. She especially did not want that gronk Emel to see how upset she was.

"Are you ok, Teela?"

Teela started at the sound of the voice. She turned and saw Tevest beside her. He had recently joined the cadets, and was the youngest and smallest member of the squad. He was short and stocky, with a shock of red hair and ears that stuck out. Even though the others made fun of him for doing so, he always talked to Teela.

"Sure Iím ok," Teela replied with a faint smile.

Tevest sighed. "I wish we could stop. My backside hurts. Itís never ridden this far before."

Teela giggled. "Man-At-Arms says we will be stopping soon."

"Good. Not that I fancy spending the night in the Vile Marsh," added Tevest. "They say the souls of dead warriors haunt the swamps at night."

"Great," retorted Teela. "As if we don't have enough bad company already."

Emel appeared alongside them. "Well, if there are ghosts here, we'd better send you home, Teela!" he muttered. "A baby like you would howl the swamp down if one came near you."

Teela reined in her horse and turned to face Emel. She could see that Tevest was going red - a sure sign that he was about to lose his temper. "Are you sure that you arenít talking about yourself, Emel?" she questioned. Emel halted abruptly. The rest of the squad reined in behind him, curious as to how the impending drama would unfold.

"I donít have any worries about my bravery," stated Emel scornfully. "But then I am a man and a warrior! You might tremble when someone speaks of phantoms, Teela, but I won't."

Teela's face flushed red, and she realised that her right hand was squeezing the grip of her short sword. "Are you calling me a coward?" she questioned.

"If the apron fits," Emel answered.

Teela felt Tevest's hand on her right arm. She looked at her companion, and she knew from his expression exactly what his sentiments were. Tevest was fuming, but this was not the time or the place for a confrontation. Teela relaxed her grip and moved her hand from her sword. Tevest nodded slightly, and withdrew his hand.

"Teelaís braver than you any day, Emel," stated Tevest coldly.

Emel sniggered. "Yeah? Prove it."

Teela turned her horse away. "I will. You wait and see."

Emel shook his head in disbelief, but said nothing further.

Man-At-Arms' voice broke the uneasy standoff. "Why have we stopped?"

Silence greeted his question. Moments passed before Tevest spoke. "I was telling Teela about the stories of the Vile Marsh being haunted, sir. Is there any truth in the old tales?"

Man-At-Arms studied Tevest's inquiring face. "Well, Tevest, I guess that depends on your point of view. What do you mean by 'haunted'?"

"Populated by the souls of the dead, I suppose," replied Tevest.

"Come on, let's ride," commanded Man-At-Arms. "The light is fading. And in answer to your question, Tevest, the souls of all beings are everywhere." Man-At-Arms paused briefly. "Anyway, it's not the dead that you need to worry about in the Vile Marsh." Flicking his reins, the warrior moved to the head of the column, and the rest of the squad followed on slowly.

Tevest turned to Fisto. "What did he mean by that?" he asked.

Fisto looked at Tevest, hesitating before giving his answer. "He meant it's the undead you should be concerned about."

An hour later Man-At-Arms gave the command for the squad to set up camp. They had reached the top of a hill which poked its summit through the miasma of damp fetid air rising from the bog pools. Teela stood up from pitching her tent. The sun was setting, and in its dying rays she noticed in the distance what looked like a ruin. She shaded her eyes and squinted. She could just make out the line of what had been a city wall, many leagues to the east.

"What do you see?"

Teela jumped. "Tevest!" she exclaimed. "How do you sneak up on people like that?"

Tevest shrugged. "Just a knack I guess. So what do you see?"

"I think there may be a ruined city out there."

Tevest looked where she pointed. He shook his head. "I can't see a thing. Guess my eyes arenít as good as my sneaking up skills. Now, if you've finished, I want to find a zila bug."

Teela looked at him and grimaced. "What do you want one of those for? They stink."

Tevest grinned and looked over to where Emel was still struggling to put up his tent. "Exactly."

Meanwhile, Fisto was lighting the fire in the centre of the camp. He remembered camping here during his own training as a warrior cadet. Of course, things had been done differently in those days. The training was conducted unofficially and in secrecy, for Hordak had outlawed all military training except for his own Horde. Fisto frowned at the memories. Training had been short and the war had been long.

The earth under the tinder was still black from numerous expeditions. Fisto closed his tinderbox and angled it close to the straw in the hollow he had fashioned in the fire logs. He struck the flint against the steel. A large spark leapt out and landed on the straw. It began to smoulder and burn. Fisto blew on it gently, adding small dry twigs to the pile. As the flames grew, he added larger pieces of wood.

"You havenít lost your touch."

Fisto looked up at Man-At-Arms and grinned. "Camp stew will be ready shortly," he said. Man-At-Arms laughed. Camp stew was basically the day's rations boiled in one pot of water. The meagre mixture was a tasteless blend of strips of meat and root vegetables. The squad would be hungry, with nothing to add to the meal but a couple of hard tack biscuits and water from their flasks. Man-At-Arms insisted that they would have no more luxury than a fully trained fighting unit.

Man-At-Arms turned to leave. Fisto took a deep breath as he added more wood to the fire. "I have been meaning to speak to you," he said. Man-At-Arms stopped.

"About Teela?" he asked.

Fisto looked up in surprise. Man-At-Arms crouched down beside his friend. "She is having a hard time from the rest of the squad," Fisto stated.

Man-At-Arms nodded. "I know. But what can I do? I do not treat her any differently from the rest. She has no preferential treatment as a girl or as my daughter. The truth is I probably make her work harder."

Fisto gripped his friendís shoulder. "Perhaps that is as much a mistake as giving her preferential treatment. You make it harder for her than for the squad, and she does everything you ask without fail. It is hard for the boys to accept that Teela has every right to be a warrior."

"But they should," interrupted Man-At-Arms.

Fisto nodded. "Of course. But she rarely makes mistakes, and she makes them look inept."

"So what would you suggest I do, Fisto?" asked Man-At-Arms.

"Remember every journey starts with one step," Fisto replied. "Let them get used to the fact that a girl wants to be a warrior. Let Teela make more mistakes. It will help her to discover her path."

Man-At-Arms looked at Fisto. "You are right as usual, my friend."

Fisto shrugged. "We shall see. Teela will be stronger for the difficulties she currently faces. Now, let's get this squad together for supper."

The glow of the fire lifted the spirits of the squad, for it brought heat and light to the menacing landscape. Twilight fell quickly during the Winter months, but here in the Vile Marsh, it was only the hours of daylight that changed with the passing of the seasons.

The cadets spoke amongst themselves about the journey they had undertaken. From the Fertile Plains in the south, they had travelled through the vastness of the Evergreen Forest before reaching the Vile Marsh. The snow-covered landscape of the forest had been hard to traverse as the Winter drifts were always heavy, but now the boys longed to return.

Man-At-Arms noticed Tevest's thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. "You do not join in the chatter of your companions, Tevest," he remarked.

"I was remembering your words from earlier, sir," Tevest replied. "And I was wondering about the city that Teela saw when we set up camp."

"Ah, the ruined city of Nightflame," Man-At-Arms said with a wry smile. "I thought talk would turn to the legends eventually."

Overhearing his words, the other members of the squad began to crowd around Man-At-Arms with curiosity. "It looks like you'll be telling the stories this evening, my friend," remarked Fisto. "I shall enjoy listening to your tale of adventure!"

Man-At-Arms raised his eyebrows. "Very well," he stated. "Gather round everyone, and I shall tell you the legend of Nightflame."

He waited a few moments while the trainees settled down around him before beginning his story. Leaning forwards, he prodded the fire with a stick. Sparks floated into the night air. "Nightflame..." he murmured. "Centuries ago, the city was built by master craftsmen. It was a city of beauty - constructed from the finest marble, with tree-lined avenues as symmetrical as the towering columns of the architecture. To protect Nightflame from the perils of the Vile Marsh, a mighty perimeter wall was raised around the entire city.

"The decision to place Nightflame at the heart of the marsh was a bold one, fraught with danger, but the Eternians of the time were peace-loving people who sought to create beauty in even the most remote locations. The hardships of life under the rule of the Snake Men was within the living memory of the city elders, and they had no desire for history to repeat itself.

"Yet evil lurked within the swamps, and the creatures of darkness were envious of the city, longing to claim it as their own. They despised the influence of good, seeking only to destroy the inhabitants of Nightflame. Yet the perimeter wall resisted all attempts at conquest for many years, keeping back the fiends of the marsh.

"Sadly the city of Nightflame was not destined to last. The swamp creatures grew in number and became more organised in their efforts. At first, the city withstood the more determined attacks, but not for long. The barriers were broken, and the invasion of Nightflame began.

"The beautiful city became a battleground once the perimeter was breached. The defenders struggled against the invaders, and watched their home being destroyed around them. Many lives were lost in the battles, and the tranquillity of Nightflame was shattered.

"The elders knew that Nightflame was on the verge of collapse. The soldiers were fighting hard and determinedly, but defeat was imminent. They sent an envoy to Castle Grayskull, requesting the assistance of the Sorceress. The Sorceress of the time was a young warrior mystic named Ty'luan. Ty'luan agreed to join the defenders of Nightflame.

"With the Sorceress of Grayskull supporting them, the soldiers of Nightflame began to gain the upper hand in the conflict. The creatures of the marsh were driven back or slain, but they had devastated the city beyond repair. The once proud buildings were now nothing more than crumbling ruins. Eventually the grip of evil was loosened, and the battle was won. But the cost had been desperately high. Ty'luan was killed during the final battle, and the survivors realised that their home was now uninhabitable. With sorrow in their hearts, they abandoned the city.

"Nightflame has stood silently ever since those days of tragedy, forsaken by its people and avoided by all those who later ventured into the marsh. It is said that there are beings who still reside there - those who fell on the battleground but whose souls are trapped within the mist of the swamp, unable to complete their journeys to the afterlife. They are known as the Wanderers, for they drift about the ruins, lost between life and death. They cannot escape, for they were slain when Ty'luan fell, and their souls were bound to the weapon of Grayskull that she was carrying at the time of her death."

Man-At-Arms leaned back, and tossed the stick on to the fire. "At least, that is what the legend says," he added.

For a while, the squad sat in silence, wondering at Man-At-Arms' story. The fire suddenly seemed colder, and Tevest rose quietly and added some more logs to the flames.

The first to speak was Emel. "Ghost stories!" he exclaimed. "They are for scaring children, not warriors! I doubt the Wanderers even exist, but if they do, I would stand my ground fearlessly."

"You should have more respect for the myths, Emel," stated Fisto. "Do you know how to kill an undead warrior?"

Emel was about to make a joke when he realised Fisto's question was serious. He shook his head.

"You strike him down with an enchanted blade, or you let him touch you," Fisto continued. "The enchanted blade is preferable. If you chose the second option, you both die."

Emel's face fell. "I don't recall the armourer saying my sword had a magical blade," he remarked quietly.

"And that, my young friend, is why we never go any closer to Nightflame than here," Fisto replied.

Watching Tevest place the large green zila bug under the flap of Emel's tent had been the best part of the evening. Emel would go mad when he realised the beetle had crawled all over his possessions, leaving behind a stench worse than the decaying vegetation of the marsh. Teela giggled to herself as she imagined Emel's face when he found out. He would be furious. Not as furious as Man-At-Arms, though, when he discovered that she had slipped out from camp and ridden to Nightflame.

She realised that her little expedition in the dead of night was foolhardy, but the story her father had told had intrigued her. She had felt drawn to Nightflame from the moment she had seen it, and she knew she had to explore the ruined city. Creeping away in the darkness had been easy, and it was the one time she was grateful for being small.

Her horse was uneasy in the darkness of the marsh, but she patted its neck and whispered reassurances, coaxing the animal to continue onwards. The ride was slow, for the light was poor. The half-moon illuminated the dank landscape weakly, struggling to break through the mist, but there was enough light for Teela to make progress towards Nightflame.

When Teela reached the ruins of Nightflame's perimeter wall, she realised that the city had been huge. When she had seen the wall from the camp, she had estimated that Nightflame had been approximately the size of Eternos, but she had been wrong. The city in the marsh was vast - and with awe she realised that its many buildings and streets had housed a population of thousands.

The ruins stood on high ground, and even now, hundreds of years since the fall of the city, there remained a majesty and elegance that even the darkness of the Vile Marsh could not penetrate. The wall was mostly in a state of collapse, but in places the enormous blocks of pale white-grey stone remained standing as a monument to the once proud city. Yet even the intact parts of the wall were damaged, and Teela knew not whether the cracks were caused by natural erosion or the weapons of long ago. Wild plants sprawled over the masonry in untidy fashion, and the faint moonlight illuminated the pitted texture of the stones.

Teela guided her horse towards a gap in the wall, but the steed stopped suddenly. Teela tried to coax the animal gently, but it refused to take a step closer to the ruins. Teela dismounted, patted the horse's neck, and went on alone. As she clambered over the fallen stone blocks, she noticed that inside the perimeter, the evening mist seemed unable to linger. The absence of the mist inside the city was disconcerting, for it seemed as if an unseen force prevented it from passing over the city wall. Yet Teela was grateful for the brighter moonlight, and as she gazed about at the remains of the ancient buildings, she wondered where she should start exploring.

Venturing into Nightflame, Teela studied her surroundings. Most of the buildings were in a state of collapse. Smashed roof tiles were strewn everywhere among the crumbling stone walls of ruined dwellings. Weeds had forced their way through the street cobbles, causing large uneven cracks, and as Teela wandered along the once glorious avenues, she imagined how spectacular the city must have been when it was built. Now there were no neat rows of trees along the walkways, although the seedlings from those original plants had rooted and grown randomly in the chaos of the ruins. Teela saw other buildings too, larger and grander than the houses. She thought they must have been council chambers and temples, and she admired the few sculptured columns that remained intact. She found areas that had once been cultivated gardens, with lakes and fountains, and yet more buildings whose purposes she could not ascertain. The community here must have been proud and successful, Teela realised, and she both admired and pitied the people of Nightflame.

Teela continued her exploration, studying the ancient structures with curiosity and wonder. There was an eeriness to Nightflame, but this was not due to the ghost stories her father had told at the camp. Somehow the city seemed familiar to her, as if a memory from long ago was trying to push its way into her thoughts. She dismissed the images, reminding herself that in all her twelve years, she had never visited Nightflame before. Yet the memory persisted, and she imagined the streets as they once were, full of laughing children and traders selling their wares. In the next instant the vision was gone, but it affected her deeply, and she stood still for a moment to gather her thoughts. The memory had been so vivid... she drew breath and told herself that her father was a talented storyteller.

Walking slowly onwards, Teela noticed a faint shadow drifting in the air, a short way above the ground. Shapeless and diaphanous, the breath of darkness floated towards her. Teela stopped in her tracks, staring at the phenomenon. The shadow seemed to be growing larger, drawing darkness from the surrounding air. Teela backed away slowly, watching the shadow intently. She changed direction, moving cautiously into another street. As she looked back, she saw the shapeless form appear from behind the building on the street corner, and suddenly she realised that the shadow was tracking her. It drifted slowly, gradually increasing in size as it moved towards her. Hurrying now, Teela glanced back as she ran, and saw with horror that the shadow seemed to be taking human form. The wraith followed her in unhurried fashion, drifting mist-like through the ruined streets. Teela stumbled over the uneven cobbles as she ran, nearly losing her balance. She was increasing the distance between her and the phantom, but as she looked ahead, she realised that three more wraiths were blocking her path.

Frantically changing direction, she ran into the ruins of a house, clambering wildly over the broken masonry, and snapping brittle tiles underfoot. Her heart was pounding, and she did not have to look back to know the phantasmal creatures were still in pursuit. She jumped through a gap in the building's wall into another avenue. Glancing along the course of the street, she saw more of the wraiths drifting towards her. She ran towards a fountain that marked the convergence of four broad avenues, desperately trying to maintain her bearings and plot the movements of the wraiths. Yet with each step she made, she realised that more and more of the phantoms were materializing from the air, and closing in on her position.

Her flight became a desperate scramble through ruined buildings and streets. When she had made the decision to spend the night in the city, it had been to prove her bravery to the members of the squad like Emel. Now she was barely able to control the terror that threatened to overwhelm her. She was angry with herself for being so foolish, but realised that her anger suppressed her fear, and forced her to continue running. She had never actually believed she would encounter the Wanderers of Nightflame, reluctantly agreeing with Emel's observation that the legends were fanciful tales used to scare children. Now all doubts had vanished - the phantoms were very real and very close.

Teela resolved to run all night if she had to - whatever it took to escape from the Wanderers and the haunted city. There was little more she could do, for against the undead warriors, her short sword was useless. Flight was the only defence. In the moonlight, she saw dozens of the wraiths approach her from almost every direction, leaving only one or two paths open. It did not take her long to realise that this was tactical - the Wanderers were forcing her to move in a particular direction, and she wondered how long the pursuit would last before they succeeded in entrapping her.

As the Wanderers drew nearer, Teela thought she could hear their voices - strange whispers that echoed in her thoughts. At first she could not understand what they said, but soon she realised that they were repeating a name over and over. It was a breathless, eerie chant, repeated endlessly as the Wanderers drifted after her.

Ty'luan... Ty'luan...

Teela almost screamed at the voices. They echoed around the ruins, the sounds seemingly coming from everywhere at once.

Ty'luan...

Teela knew she was on the edge of panic. Glancing around she saw the Wanderers were perilously close, their phantasmal arms reaching towards her. Their voices seemed louder now, chanting the name of the dead Sorceress as they closed in. Teela looked ahead, and saw more of the Wanderers floating mist-like through the air towards her. Encircled by the phantoms, Teela knew she could not escape. Stumbling over the rubble beneath her feet, her strength vanished, and she collapsed to the ground. Closing her eyes, she waited for the moment of death.

Ty'luan... Ty'luan...

The voices continued chanting Ty'luan's name, but the cold hand of death that Teela was anticipating never came. Teela slowly opened her eyes, and stared up at the circle of Wanderers that surrounded her. She wondered why they came no closer, and in the shadows she thought she could see their faces. And as she stared at them, she realised that they sought something other than her death. The faces were desperately forlorn, and she felt their sadness.

Teela slowly sat up, and as she did so, she placed her hand on an object buried amongst the rubble of shattered stone. She looked down and saw a wooden staff. The tip had been carved into a snake's head, fashioned to appear ready to strike. She gripped the staff and pulled it clear of the masonry. As she stood upright, she felt a surge of energy pass from the staff into her body.

Ty'luan... the Wanderers whispered once more, then fell silent. And it was in that moment that Teela finally understood why destiny had guided her to Nightflame.

The riders reached the city at dawn. The sunlight illuminated the remains of Nightflame's perimeter wall, forcing back the mist and welcoming the new day. Fisto was the first to see Teela's horse. The animal had waited where she had left it, for it would no sooner head back into the Vile Marsh than it would enter the city.

"Our fears have been realised," Fisto murmured sadly. "Teela did come here last night."

Man-At-Arms simply stared at the ruined wall, unable to speak.

Emel dismounted. "We must search for her," he stated, his voice anxious.

Tevest nodded in agreement, and swung himself from his horse. He walked up to Emel, then looked back at the rest of the squad. "Who will join us?" he asked.

Gradually the riders dismounted, and made their way to Emel and Tevest. "Wait!" commanded Fisto. "You should be aware that this is a perilous undertaking. I will lead those of you who wish to search for Teela. I will not require this of any of you, for such a quest goes beyond the duty of a soldier. There is no shame in turning back now."

"Sir, our duty is to each other," said Emel.

Fisto nodded. "Well spoken, Emel," he replied. "We may make a warrior of you yet."

Suddenly Tevest shouted. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing at the gap in the stone wall.

The squad stared in disbelief, for there stood Teela, grasping the snake staff, haloed by the early morning sunlight. Man-At-Arms sighed deeply, and closed his eyes with relief. Teela began to walk towards the squad, and suddenly the cadets realised she was not alone. Passing through the gap in the wall behind her came scores of phantasmal human shapes.

As she led the Wanderers from Nightflame, Teela raised the snake staff, pointing the head towards the sunlight. The Wanderers encircled her, gradually returning to their shapeless states. Freed at last from their entombment, the Wanderers whispered her name in gratitude, before fading into the sunlight. Soon the last wisps of shadow had vanished, but for a while longer, faint voices, filled with happiness, could be heard whispering softly.

Teela... Teela...

Teela walked slowly to the group, leaning heavily on the staff. As she glanced at Fisto, she saw him smile, his expression a mixture of relief and admiration. She turned and saw Emel staring at her. Slowly he extended his right arm. Teela paused, realising the significance of his actions. In full view of the rest of the squad, Emel was offering the warriors' greeting. She walked to him, and they gripped each other's forearms. "Welcome home," Emel said, and his words were sincere.

Releasing her grip, Teela made her way to where Man-At-Arms was standing. She threw her arms about his neck, and they hugged each other warmly. "Are you alright?" Man-At-Arms asked. Teela nodded, and this time she did not mind the question.