"Not Alone. Not Alive."
Episode Five – 7th Sea
The group travels, hoping to reach the Sarmatian Commonwealth before the Villains get to there. Not wanting to risk Porte magic once more, the group decides to take the risk of heading straight through the Walder, camping when necessary, to cut on time. Jan Volta is confident his Survivalist training can handle things there. Reikion on the other hand admits being at home in the woods compared to the cities. Walden Reichart is overruled and decides to trust in the two. The first few nights of journeying through the woods is without any complications with Reikion amused in watching what the "scientific world" knows of the wild. They journey quickly, reaching one of the rivers that leads to Stutzung without any incident. They see a group of other travelers moving in the woods, a family with children, and they watch with worry as the dark bird – Reikion in his animal form – seems to watch them as they pass. Reikion overhears them talking about the woods being the stalking grounds of a horrible creature called the Schattenmann, or "Shade Man" that stalks those who stray from the path, and dismember his victims with an enormous pair of shears.
By the next night, however, as the group camps close to the next river breaks, things begin to take a less favorable twist in direction. They soon find a dead body, perhaps a man who got lost in the woods, with most of the flesh picked clean by predators. Walden studies the body and begins digging through the corpse for parts he could gather. Reikion asks why he has no respect for the dead. Walden simply explains there is use for the dead. Reikion realizes the Circle of Life still exists even among those who practice Walden's strange Sorcery.
Further, they find bushes ripe with berries and gather them for more to eat. All three of them silently are thankful it does not resemble the odd berries they encountered in Starke. The canopy of trees above have growth thicker that the sunlight barely reaches them. Even navigating requires them to be wary of their footing. They soon reach the next river mouth and the darkness surrounds them. They set camp, with Reikion heading off to forage for some food. Walden heads out to try to gather a few herbs as well, hoping to be able to prepare more unguents when necessary. Jan prepares the fire and creates a sleeping area for each of them. Reikion sees a rabbit, but allows it to go on its way rather than hunt it for the food. Walden finds more rare herbs and carefully stores them, knowing things like nightshade can be poisonous if not kept properly. On the way back, however, Walden strays from the path and finds the body of a priest brutally shoved inside a crevice of a tree. The man is dead, and Walden has no idea here he came from. The man still has the symbol of the Prophet around his throat and a travelling pack left on the ground. The body is barely a day old. Walden scouts around and finds no predators about, save for an owl staring at him from the branches. Drawing the dracheneisen dagger he found from the previous cottage, he exhales with relief when he does not see it glowing. He gathers the eyes and tongue from the dead body, thankful for more ingredients to use.
Reikion returns and gives Jan the fruit. Jan admits he expected meat, with the fire now burning brightly for roasting. They eat the fruit instead, trading stories about what birds eat for survival, while Jan reminds him they are not all birds. He does raise the question if the amount of food he eats as an animal adjusts in how fulfilling it is when he transforms back to a human form.
Walden realizes the cause of death is choking. He either shoved himself inside too much to the point he could not breathe, or was shoved in by something. As he checks the bag, he can hear the heavy metal objects still inside, which makes him think if this was done by thieves or bandits, they would have stolen the bag. He tries heading back to the others.
When he returns the others share with him the fruits. They notice the blood on him and Walden reassures them the blood isn't his. He shows them the bag he found and they all see inside two large bottles, perhaps wine, as well as a small metal box with polished panels. Walden tells them of the corpse he found and Jan identifies the wine to be Vaticine Church wine. The box is filled with wafers. Jan opens the wine and smells it to still be fresh and potent. Reikion is concerned since it is the second body they have found so far. Walden explains slightly the basics of how he has been using human remains for the Hexe creations he makes which prove useful in his battle against monsters. The two nod, choosing to leave Walden to handle such things on his own.
Later in the evening, in the quiet of the woods with nothing but their occasional breathing as the sound filling the night and the crackling of the fire, Walden catches sight of a number of pale figures watching him from the distance. He sees standing figures, at least four of them, with pale white skin. They look humanoid, but remain unmoving, merely standing and facing his direction like statues that were not there before. When Walden takes a step towards the fire, the figures all take a step forward as well. Walden quickly begins to see that the figures move each time he moves. The figures are naked. Male, female, but it seems hard to discern any age. Walden draws his pistol and takes a step to the fire. The figures move again, stepping one step towards him. The faces are blackened around the eyes. Their lips are closed. A mask-like design adorns the face. Walden stares and realizes what he thought was a mask was actually the flesh of the face having gone missing, with the bone visible where the "mask" should be.
Looking down, Walden realizes his dracheneisen daggers are glowing. The things have not moved, however. He takes a few tentative steps towards it, and once more, the things take an equal number of steps that he has made. He calls out to them, saying hello, but none of them respond. He begins trying to wake the others with his voice. Reikion does not awaken, sleeping too soundly against the grass. Jan wakes up, and seeing Walden with the pistol, he draws his own pistol. The moment he starts to stand up, however, all the figures turn now to face him. Walden draws the dracheneisen daggers, and their glow fills the camp. As Jan begins to move, the figures keep moving now towards him. Walden waits, allowing Jan to keep moving to draw the closest one to them. With Walden now flanking the figure, he lunges at it with his blade, with Jan having maneuvered the thing to a vulnerable position. Jan fires his pistol to the air, waking Reikion now. The white figure crumples to the ground, with Walden's strike having disabled it with a single blow. The thing shatters into dust, as if it were nothing but a hollow statue of a man. Reikion, seeing the others, instinctively jumps backwards and looks around. Walden explains its some kind of undead. The other figures are still watching them, waiting for the to move to close in again. They realize as they draw their weapons, the things don't approach. But at each time anyone takes the step, the things step closer. Walden warns them their campfire is getting very low.
As they map out their plan to deal with it, they notice one towering taller than the most. The figure, with a more elaborate face mask, suddenly speaks and tells the three of them to stop moving for the moment. Surprised to hear her speak, the woman explains the things are relentless, and will follow them through the forest day or night until they are eaten. The group begins to realize the woman is painted pale white, or at least has skin as white as chalk, and is wearing a mask to somehow look like the monsters. When Reikion asks what they should do, she hesitates for a while, then admits she isn't sure if she can trust them. But she can welcome them to her tower if they promise to surrender their weapons to her. She explains finally that the monsters cannot see they are living if they conceal their eyes. The beasts see through their own eyes, and thus move whenever a living pair of eyes moves as well. Reikion tells the others to cover their eyes. Walden ignites the severed arm of the monster he had killed earlier and tries igniting it as a torch. Walden closes his eyes and Jan starts giving him instructions on how to approach each monster with the burning torch and at times, he even takes steps back to draw the monsters closer to the fire. It is a slow method, but it works and eventually each of the monsters are burned down. The white woman explains the things are constantly searching for the living, seeing through the eyes of the living, and hunting for them relentlessly until a new pair of eyes steals their attention. The things travel in large groups.
They share the woman their gratitude and she offers to bring them to her tower to find rest and safety. She warns them, however, that they can only stay for the night. Reluctantly, the group agrees. The woman reveals her mount, a headless horse which has skin almost porcelain like herself. Walden wonders if she is a Hexe just like him, and asks if she was the one who was gathering the other… organs from the dead in the woods. She nods. Jan moves to the side, calling upon his dievas and he asks if the woman is trust-worthy. The dievas honestly answers, "No." He warns the others secretly of his concerns of not trusting the woman. They follow, for now.
She leads them to a white tower surrounded by darkened homes. A white circle of salt surrounds the perimeter. As they follow her to the tower, some of them glimpse misshappen and disabled figures peering from the dark homes. None of the homes show torches or lanterns. They are asked to leave their weapons in a chamber by the entrance of the tower. When Walden draws his dracheneisen blades to surrender them, they all see the blades glowing. He chooses to surrender them for now.
Going inside, they reach the first landing and soon meet her brother, Olaf, whose clothes are just as pale and white as his own skin. They climb up the steps, with Olaf constantly berating the woman for allowing strangers into their homes. She, however, reminds him that they have a duty to help those they can, especially given what they have gone through. She explains her brother Olaf cares and protects her and they should not take his words too personally. They no longer have other family, save for the peasants outside. "Eisen is not safe. They know better than to be outside at night." She explains the tower was originally built as a sanctuary for travelers lost in the woods. But now, she and Olaf devote themselves to protect their peasants from the horrors that they made a mistake to let in before. Their parents used the peasants in the past as slaves and tools to mine the nearby mountains. She calmly narrates how she decapitated her parents and used their own eyes to see their souls and imprison them away. Walden nods, explaining to the others that she uses Hexe. Their ways are common. He asks if the peasants are alive, and she admits they would not be useful otherwise. When he asks if she is alive, however, she admits she no longer is. And neither is her brother. She even allows Jan to use his scalpel to cut into her chest, and she does not react in any manner to the blade, despite her wound starting to bleed. Walden reminds them not to accept any bread or porridge.
The first room they are shown is a room completely blue. She explains their father used to live here. Olaf's attitude is explained soon enough as a reflection of his anger for having trusted their parents only to be hurt in so many ways. Their parents used to use them to lure other travelers to the tower, to bring them ingredients needed for their magic. They did this for ten years. Now he chooses not to trust others. "He does not realize the worst things always happen for the best reasons." She allows Jan to stay in the room, and reminds him it has the best bed.
Reikion is then lead to the next room, a vibrant green room which the mother used to use. She explains that she and her brother sleep at the attic. They would only be released from their rooms to fulfill their roles to draw wanderers to the tower. With the door closed, Walden accompanies the white woman back downstairs, as the offers to show him something else. He asks her about the peasants, if they are always used to harvest the ingredients she needs. She admits they give it freely, as payment for her protection. But some nights she uses what she can find in the woods. He shares his findings of the dead priest in the woods and asks if she was behind his death. She confirms she only collected what she needed from him.
Jan inspects the room and finds vestments and clothes inside. He tries to get some sleep, but has this constant feeling of someone watching him as he slumbers. Reikion opts to sleep on the floor instead, unwilling to sleep in the bed. Jan eventually repositions himself to sleep at the wall facing the door, feeling uneasy of the massive mirror against one wall. Reikion finds a hatch at the bottom of the bed, and pulls at it to find a container under the bed with what looks like personal effects such as jewelry and other trinkets. A small pillow with a mirror can be found in another, along with ink pots and a journal. He undoes the ribbon seal and looks inside.
Walden is lead out of the tower and she leads him to a building, which she unlocks to reveal inside a flayed man. The figure, with skin cleanly cut away, and the organs spread out and pinned, suddenly moves and reveals its consciousness despite being disassembled. She calls it her parents' former master, and they had defeated it but realized could not kill it. It is through this monster that she feeds and sustains herself on its blood. Walden's daggers glow so brightly, they are almost blinding. She explains the thing is one of the most fascinating undead she has ever seen, as it still holds some semblance of personality. They learn she and her brother feed on the monster, sustaining themselves with the terrible thing that created them, in order to protect the people from the other monsters beyond the tower.
Eventually the three regroup, with the two having had enough of the strange hauntings coming from the rooms and Walden realizing the conflicting feelings he is struggling against inside his heart. The two are clearly cursed, twisted into monsters and yet they have somehow turned their dark pasts into opportunities to help the peasants that live around their tower. They debate on the matter and in the end feel it might be best to leave the two to continue their accursed existence. To let them live on and be a dark yet shining beacon in the woods of the Walder.
They wait for morning. With the sun rising, they see the misshapen people emerging from their dark homes, and watch as the people then take their roles as protectors, to watch over the two monsters who now sleep during the day and trust on them to protect their immortality.
With that, the heroes leave, wondering and hoping they chose for the best. Who would have thought they would find in the dark woods of Eisen that the darkness and the light can blend into one.