You can talk all you want about how the Night of Souls is nothing more than a bunch of silly tales no one believes, and that sitting around the fire telling stories is merely some inn-keeper’s way of making money on gullible fools, and mostly I’d believe you. But not all of the stories are false, and I’d know: I’ve been traveling this land for a long time.
Who am I? My name is Haden Ley. I am, in no particular order, a soldier, sailor, love-maker, tale-teller, horse-trainer, thief. I have traveled from Dargon to Bitom, from Sharks’ Cove to Pyridain City — before the Bennies took it over — and even into Comarr, and I have seen it all. I’ve seen a giant beanstalk, towering in the sky, and a tiny woman, two feet high. I’ve seen the fools of a king and the King of Fools. I’ve seen it all. However, I should also tell you that I am Haden Ley, notorious liar, and you will believe me or no at your own discretion and at your own risk.
So you ask me, what do I know about the Night of Souls? Well, my friends, let me ask you something: where are the wizards on the 30th of Vibril?
You see, several years ago, I was in the employ of a wizard of some power, called Vanshans. Now, most wizards I’ve run into look like ordinary people, like you and me, and the only way you can tell if someone is a wizard is if he does some feat of magic. Ol’s balls, not even that’s always effective. I bet I could claim to be a wizard and half the simpletons out there would believe me. I can even do a few tricks that many would take for real magic. I wonder how many real wizards there actually are and how many are just fakers and liars like me.
Old Vanshans, now he was a real wizard. Looked and acted like a proper one. He was tall, maybe half a head taller than I, and thin, not much thicker than a staff. He had this long black hair with silver streaks and wore robes of deep purple and blue. Lived in a tower built like himself, tall and narrow. Always full of himself, too. No fear in him, but I’ve got to admit that it wasn’t unjustified. Why I remember the time that Old Sharky’s band tried to loot the tower. Vanshans wasn’t scared, even though I was the only one with him at the time, and hardly enough to hold off that many mercenaries. No, he just … but that’s another story. The important thing to remember is that he could be a nasty old bugger when he wanted.
Anyway, I was his bodyguard some time back. An easy job, actually. I mean, who wants to anger a wizard? Annoy him and get boils on your butt. Hurt him and lose your sight or hearing or some such. Kill him and — well, I shudder to imagine. At least, that’s what most people think, and it amounts to the same thing. So, my main job was to slow down anyone foolish enough to attack us until they realized what Vanshans was, then let their fears do the rest. As for those who were too stupid to get the idea … well, my friend, Haden Ley may be no wizard, but my sword is sharp.
One Vibril, Vanshans became annoyed by some young upstart getting too big for his britches and went off in a huff to take care of the lad, not thinking about much else but his business, and I accompanied him. While it didn’t take long for Vanshans to finish, it did take some time to get there, and we set off back for home late in the month. About halfway back, we found ourselves in the middle of a nasty storm. Wind, rain, and lightning, all in abundance, and us in the middle of this large forest, no town nearby. Luckily, we came across an inn, although a rather rickety one with gaps in the walls, and took shelter there though the day was not much past halfway done.
“I have never seen such a storm!” exclaimed my master, almost losing his normal reserve as he shook the water from his robes.
I removed my own clothes and shivered, for while the roof kept out the rain, the walls let in most of the wind. But I dug around in our pack and found the driest robe I could for him, then something not too damp for me. As I hung our wet clothes on a piece of rope to dry, I asked him if our present predicament might have something to do with his little spat with the lad. He just looked at me and said something about how I knew nothing about the duel arcane, and thus the subject was closed.
After I had dressed, I went down to the common room to get some food for Vanshans and myself. As I waited for it, I noticed that some of the locals were setting up in the fire pit a large pile of wood which I could tell from the smell was nice and green. However, the walls down there were as porous as the ones up in our room and the drafts were blowing the rushes on the floor all around. So, when the wench came out with the food, two bowls of a squirrel stew with onions and potatoes and two mugs of ale, I asked her if they were going to be able to light that fire, with all that wind.
She just cackled and pointed to a large, rough looking man who was setting up the wood. “See Jocky over there?” she said. “Jocky’s the best woodsman in the kingdom. He could light that fire outside on a day like this, if need be!” She gave another cackle and said, “Don’t you worry none. We wouldn’t dare not have a fire on the Night of Souls.” For it was that night, as I damn well knew. I pay attention to such things. I thought that Vanshans did, too, but I guess he hadn’t thought things through this time.
Anyway, I took the food and drink up to the room, where Vanshans had dug out a brazier from somewhere and had it lit. He stood there warming himself as I put a bowl and a mug on the table, where he sat to eat while I sat on the floor by the door. We ate in silence, Vanshans not being terribly talkative with the hired help. Afterwards, he went to and sat on the cot, going into some sort of trance, while I got out my sleeping roll and lay down, listening to the sounds of the storm. Being a bodyguard can be damn dull at times, let me tell you.
Eventually, I felt the day wear away and the storm seemed to go with it. The wind had died down to a hefty breeze by the time I gathered up the bowls and mugs to take them down before nightfall, but the rain was still coming down hard. As I opened the door, I turned and asked Vanshans if we should be expecting him downstairs soon.
He gave me that look, the one people usually reserve for the really foolish questions, like, “Will you be joining us in the town square to throw eggs at the king as he rides by?” However, when he realized that I was serious and had not lost my mind, he asked, “And why would I wish to associate with the simple folk?”
Now while I was rather used to this kind of treatment, having been with him for quite some time, I was surprised at his attitude on this of all nights of the year. “Why, because it’s the Night of Souls, sir,” said I. “It’s time to light the green wood and tell stories ’til dawn.” Of course, as I said this, I remembered that he had never joined me and his few servants on previous Nights of Souls. Until that night, I had never understood why.
When I mentioned the date, I saw something in his face that I’d never seen before: fear. “That is tonight?” he asked quietly. “I was not aware.”
I shrugged and told him to come down when he was ready. “The more the merrier,” I said.
But he just shook his head and said, “No, I think not.”
Well, I went down anyway, delivering the dirty bowls and picking up some more food and ale for myself before finding a seat in the circle forming around the wood pile. A local priestess for some god blessed the wood and Jocky, true to the wench’s word, lit that fire right up. Someone asked if my master would be joining us, and I said no, he liked his solitude. Mind you, I didn’t really think much about it. You see, I’ve always figured that the whole Night of Souls set up was just a nice way of passing a night, sort of a one night festival, and apparently most of the locals had similar thoughts, for no one batted an eye at my statement. So we started to go around the circle, telling our stories.
Now, one thing I’ve learned in my travels is that the stories told on the Night of Souls don’t change much from place to place. Oh, certain tales are told in one village that aren’t told in another, and many of the details alter, like which eye or hand the mysterious hermit had lost, or whether it was a baby girl or boy who was killed by its mother, but for the most part, the basics are all the same. That’s one reason I thought the whole myth about it was a load of manure. Still, I enjoyed it. And for all the similarities in the stories, every area has at least one story unique to it, which I have come to call “The Local Specialty,” with some places having more than just one.
Now, this inn was not really in a village, just in a convenient spot on the road, and the people around the fire were mostly local woodsman and the few farmers from the area, so the crowd wasn’t as large as some I’ve seen. As far as I can tell, it was getting around four bells of the night — hard to tell, really, since there were no bells to give the time anywhere near — when the Local Specialty was told. It was a rather dull tale about a family who declined to join the fire and disappeared during an otherwise uneventful Night, so I won’t bore you with it. But soon after the teller finished, I heard someone come down the stairs. I turned and saw that it was Vanshans. I was about to call him over when I noticed that he was circling around us, trying to not be noticed. I watched him as he went around us, then realized that he was heading for the door. While the wind and lightning had almost completely disappeared, the rain was still coming down hard, and I knew it was not the kind of weather one goes out in. So I called out to him.
“Master Vanshans!” I said. “Where are you going? The night is not fit for man nor beast. Come, sit by the fire and tell us your story.”
Well, he just turned to took at me, and I know that he was not terribly happy with me calling attention to him. Casting his gaze at the circle, he said, “No, I think that would not be wise. I shall spend the night outside. Alone.” And he left.
Now I’ve met many people in my travels, and there are a few of them who have a way of speaking which demands instant obedience. I don’t know if it’s magic or what, but Vanshans had that knack, and he used it then, which is why no one rose to stop him. I’ve always been rather spooked when anyone spoke like that, but it was worse when a wizard did it, like lightning just hit nearby. That tingling was a bad feeling on Vibril 30, and from the faces around the fire, I guess the others felt something similar. But we soon shook it off, ignored my strange employer, and went back to the stories.
Or rather, we thought we shook it off, but some of us seemed to still be affected by it, because for the next bell, people kept on looking around, as if they heard something. Even I thought I heard what sounded like scratchings and voices at the shuttered windows and doors, whispering strange and bizarre things, too quietly for understanding. It was rather unnerving, but on we continued, although I saw some of the locals looking around, as if trying to locate the source of the noises. Near the middle of the night, one of the locals finished the Three Eyed Monster story … I’m sure you’ve heard it. I swear, I’ve heard it everywhere I’ve been, and no one believes the silly thing past the age of ten. Anyway, this yokel told it, amazingly believing every line from the look on his face, while the rest of us either yawned or smirked, waiting for the idiot’s turn to end so that we could hear a real story, when the bell tolled.
Now, as I said before, there weren’t no village anywhere near this inn, and no bell tower, meaning no bell. So where did the bell come from? No one knew, not even the locals. I know they heard it because they were just as freaked as I was when that clear, deep tone echoed through the common room. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. Five.
Five bells in the night. Midnight of the Night of Souls had come. Then things got really weird.
The wind that had been dying all day suddenly picked up, howling around the inn like a full gale, blocking out the sound of the rain as it rattled the old structure. And in that wind, we heard the voices. No doubting them now, and though we couldn’t make out what they were whispering, we weren’t sure that we wanted to know. But amazingly, while the walls of the inn had been almost useless against the wind before, this wind, while rattling the inn, did not enter. The common room was dead calm. Jocky added another green branch to the fire, while the priestess said a silent prayer to her god.
Well, we were pretty much scared out of our breeches and most of us were just sitting there when the serving wench began to tell us another story. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it was about, nor the next one, but we had silently decided that maybe telling stories really was important. So for the next bell we sat there, scared, telling stories about gods know what, while that, that *wind* howled around out there. We just talked in our turn, trying to ignore it.
Then the bells sounded again, loud and clear over the wind. This time they tolled six, and as the echoes of the last “gong” died down, so too did the wind. Just as quickly as it had picked up, it was gone. Along with those awful voices.
We all looked at each other for a while. Some wag suggested that someone go outside to see what had happened, but no one volunteered. So we sat there and, after a brief pause, continued telling stories.
The rest of the night was nice and quiet. When the bells took away the wind, the rain went with it, so all we heard was the crackle of the fire and our own voices. Some fell asleep, but not many and not only did no one leave the room, no one left the circle. When day finally dawned, I was one of the many still awake. With the light beginning to stream in through the cracks in the window shutters, I felt positively normal again. And I realized that Vanshans never came back inside during the night.
Well, seeing as I was supposed to be his bodyguard and all, I got up, stretching as my muscles protested against sitting down for ten bells straight , and went to the door. It opened easily enough and the front of the inn looked normal enough, just an extremely muddy road with small branches fallen on it from the rain and wind. I walked out boldly, which was absolutely not a show for the audience of several locals following me, including old Jocky. I and my little following walked around the building and noticed the large clearing behind the inn. Now I didn’t remember a clearing back there the day before, and neither did Jocky, who had been coming here since he’d been a small boy.
As Jocky immediately mentioned, this was no natural clearing. It was almost a completely regular circle in the middle of the forest, and the ground around it was bare. I mean completely bare. Not a tree, a leaf, a bush, or a blade of grass could be seen. Except in the very center of it, where there was a patch of green in the middle of the desolation. On that patch lay Vanshans, motionless.
Well, I went over to him, crossing that bare area, my hair standing on end over the fact that while it was bare, it was also bone dry. I looked down at him and thought that I saw the remains of some sort of runes dug into the ground at the edge of the green patch.
“Is he alive?” someone called out from the edge of the clearing. While they had followed me outside, they had decided to let me cross the patch on my own.
I knelt down and felt his chest. Yep, he was alive, just unconscious. So I picked him up and carried him back into the inn, laying him on his bed. He remained unconscious for most of the day, and we stayed there that day and that night, during which the wizard spoke not a word. Whatever happened that night had really drained him.
Several months later, back in the safety of his tower, I got the nerve to ask him what happened at that inn, and I guess I caught him in a generous mood, for he told me. You see, while many people might run into the stray spirit now and then, some wizards, like Vanshans, deal with otherworldly creatures regularly, and they are particularly in tune with them. When the barriers between this and the spirit world lowers on the Night of Souls, then these wizards act as a lodestone to them, especially the more malignant and powerful ones. Vanshans had taken to spending that one night in a special room, in which he would be hidden. Thus when he realized his mistake from being so far from his tower on that night, he knew that he needed to leave the inn, for so powerful was the attraction between himself and the spirits that not even the greenwood fire would be protection enough, and the building would have been torn apart. Even with all his skill and power, he had only barely kept the spirits at bay, and had almost died that night.
And I believe him. Several years later, I went back to that inn, and I’ve seen the clearing behind it. It’s still there, and nothing grows there. Also, Jocky says that no animal will ever cross it, nor bird fly over it. So I believe what Vanshans told me.
Well, that’s my story, and every word of it true. I give my word.
Now, who’s next?