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Chapter Four

Ravens are liars. Though most people don't believe animals to be part of the struggle between good and evil, no one, including the Ravenwitch, ever asked the ravens. Of course, even if she did ask, she probably wouldn't get a truthful answer. The Ravenwitch knew her creatures enjoyed falsehood for its own sake and maliciously sought to trick and fool other creatures- and each other-whenever they could. They laughed at the misery and confusion of others and relished the infliction of pain and the letting of blood.

The Ravenwitch spoke to her feathered servants at length, in their own language, asking them the location of Yrrin. She quickly tired of their silly half truths and used her power over them-master to familiar. Yrrin had been gone for at least half the day and she needed him.

"Yrrin is gone," one raven said.

"Yes, my dear," the Ravenwitch replied, "I know that. I need to know where he has gone." "Away," another raven cawed.

Her hair, as smooth and dark as a moonless night reached to her waist and almost seemed like part of her long black dress. A cape covered in black feathers trailed behind her along the wooden floor of he tree home. All around her were dozens of ravens

The birds perched on every nook and ledge they could find, hopped across the floor, and flew about her head. She enjoyed, as always, their grace and beauty as they flew, but today she needed information, and she needed it quickly. The Ravenwitch didn't smile at her servants' antics this day. Dark eyes slowly began to smolder like kindling at the beginning of a dangerous fire. Her thin, graceful lips drew tight as she raised a graceful, milky white hand. A raven lit there and looked at her with eyes almost as black as her own.

"Where is Yrrin, my friend?" she asked the raven coolly.

"Flown away," the raven replied, "gone to join King Azoun for tea!"

Without warning, yellow, soundless flames surrounded the raven and the witch's hand. The bird's wings rose up in surprise and pain, but it couldn't leave her hand. The other ravens in the room took to the air, agitated and excited. Each black, round eye focused on its pain-wracked comrade. Raven thought held little room for compassion but a good deal for intimidation by example. Observe the misfortunes of others closely, lest they befall you-that was the way of the raven.

"I am sorry, friend, but I have no interest in your little games this day," she whispered to the raven.

"He went outside," the raven said with a quivering beak. "He never returned from fetching water from the river!"

The flame stopped. Neither the raven nor her hand showed any sign of burns. The raven flew off, its flight wobbly and erratic, but it was unharmed. The ravens echoed choruses of apologies and pleas of forgiveness from the Ravenwitch, but she dismissed them with a gesture.

"I know you cannot help your natures, my friends," she said, crossing to the staircase. "It is a terrible thing for a creature to deny its true nature."

The Ravenwitch lived in a tree. This particular tree, however, stretched its branches much higher than those around it-more than almost any natural tree. The massive trunk stood like a tower in the middle of the forest, yet as big as it was, the hollow space within, where the witch lived with her familiars, was even larger than one might expect. Despite the room inside, the tree lived and in fact flourished with the presence and care of the witch and her familiars. The Ravenwitch flowed down wooden stairs that had never known a nail, saw, or even a chisel, her long hair and dress trailing behind her like a wake. The ancient grandfather of trees had formed the stairs, the various levels, and all the other portions of the interior structure, coaxed and encouraged by the arcane spells of its mistress. The tree was as much a familiar as the hundreds of ravens that called its inner chambers and high branches home.

The tree provided a narrow crack in its outer surface as an exit. The Ravenwitch passed through the curtain of black roses that entwined the tree's bark and branches, avoiding each of the prickling thorns with a smooth fluidity. The dark rose vines gave the entire tree a somber, sinister look as it rose up far too high, blotting out the sun. One might have even thought it dead and blackened from far off. The grass around the base of the tree stood tall and thick, but the witch's passing betrayed no presence. Ravens in the branches of the monstrous tree flitted and called, but she paid them little attention. She passed a number of normal trees in the forest descending a gentle slope. The Thunder Peaks rose around her in all directions, circling her hidden valley.

The Ravenwitch's attention focused on finding her servant, Yrrin. For years he'd served her faithfully, and now she suddenly felt something amiss. The winds greeted her with scents she couldn't immediately identify, but that somehow struck her as wrong. When Yrrin had come to her he was nothing more than a man. She rewarded him with power and ability. Her gift: Yrrin could transform himself into a raven the size of a bear, and he need not fear simple blades-only magic and silver could harm him. The Ravenwitch' remade Yrrin into a creature of magic, blessed with the ability to change his shape. In return he performed chores, carried messages, and gathered information for her, though her ravens and divinations also provided her important knowledge and secrets. But where was Yrrin now?

The edge of the river waited at the bottom of the valley's slope. Tall grass grew even into the water. Beyond the river the land sloped upward toward yet another hill and eventually another peak. Insects buzzed at the river's bank, and tiny animals and birds cavorted around her. The slow-moving stream smelled of loam and decaying plants as the summer sun beat down on it. What drew the Ravenwitch's interest, however, were the trampled areas of grass she saw in the distance. She followed the river to where the grass lay matted to the ground. It appeared that a number of creatures had passed through this area. The odors she did not care for grew stronger.

The Ravenwitch heard the sounds. Grunting, cackling, and even howling rose in the distance, accompanying the sounds of movement. She moved closer slipping down into the tall grass and deftly, softy passing through it, allowing it to cover her approach.

A number of creatures with canine features-shaggy, dirty, grayish-red hair covering their bodies, long snouts, and tall, pointed ears-milled about across the river. Yellowish-green manes ran down their backs, with tufts of long hair the same color spotting their muscular, massive bodies. The creatures were taller than a man, some reaching almost eight feet in height. Their faces resembled jackals or perhaps hyenas, and they wore scraps of armor and brandished large, mannish weapons. Gnolls.

Usually such stupid, magic-poor creatures hardly presented enough reason to cause her worry. None of them appeared to see her, and her magic could ensure they wouldn't. A chill ran down her spine with clammy, ghostly fingers. Her eyes darted back and forth across the group of gnolls. Why was she so disturbed by them? And where was Yrrin?

The answers to both questions came to her after she moved just a few steps more along the bank. A body lay among the grass and reeds on the rivers opposite side. Blood and tattered, the body of Yrrin remained utterly still, just a few steps away from the laughing, snorting beast-men. The Ravenwitch stared at her fallen companion for a while, realizing her magic could do nothing to bring him back. He was gone.

Without another thought, the Ravenwitch stood. A few of the creatures on the opposite bank turned toward her with wide eyes and growls of surprise, but she ignored them. Uttering just a few magic syllables, she raised both hands high above her head. By this time, all the gnolls were looking at her, a few grabbing spears or other weapons. They were just in time to watch black lightning arc from her open palms. The spell screamed like a soul afire, and the air around the bolt of power sizzled and roiled as if it abhorred its presence. Black fingers stretched out across the river in less than an instant, striking the first gnoll in the chest. The creature exploded, spraying tiny bits of flesh and blood in a small radius of pain around it. The bolt continued, lancing into a nearby gnoll. Its life ended in grisly death as did the first's The third gnoll, directly behind the second, seemed to actually evaporate when caught in the spell's grasp, and the bolt likewise rendered the creature struck next into a reddish-brown vapor. Again and again the black lightning arced from target to target, until fully a dozen gnolls lay virtually disintegrated in a horrible display of sorcery.

"Damn you!" the Ravenwitch spat at their smoldering remains.

More gnolls were here earlier, she could tell by the amount of traffic that had passed through, but why? How had they slain her wereraven servant? They must have possessed some sort of magic. That disturbed her. The Ravenwitch would never have given the creatures such credit, but the truth of it lay obvious on the opposite bank.

The Ravenwitch cursed again and turned back toward her tree home. Yrrin would remain where he fell, for such was the way of the raven, and thus her way as well. The living always required more tending to than the dead, and this day two things burned within her: fear of the unknown and a need for vengeance.

***** | The Glass Prison | *****