The Mists of Daven
By R. Krommydas
Alberich was a simple man, a man of his cabbage patch and his two goats, a man proud of knowing which end of a pike to hold, a man who could swing a cosh and down a pint and curse out a sailor. In many ways, he was overqualified to be a militiaman for Tanner`s Rest. The hamlet consisted of a coaching inn conveniently situated on a minor trading crossroads and the few dirt farmers who kept the guards supplied with grains, potatoes, and fermentations of both. It was hardly surprising that he was out of his depth now.
“Damn you, elf, I brought you here to heal the boy, not ask the gods to do it,” he snarled. “Stop your muttering and get on with it!”
To his credit, the healer kept his eyes on the patient, and his voice steady. “Elf-kin, sir, elf-kin. Also, I must insist upon silence or I will have you removed from the room.”
Alberich spluttered with indignation, but he held his tongue. His pride could be avenged later, once the boy was on his feet again. Though, truth be told, that seemed impossible. Those wounds...
Pale as a ghost, the boy lay still on the bed, all but dead to the world. His eyelids flickered as the elf -- elf-kin, Alberich corrected himself grudgingly, a bastard half-blooded wretch -- plucked one of the stained fangs from his side, and he let out a faint, bubbling moan as the hole was packed with a fibrous mesh bound with spider silk. Alberich tensed, hating the helplessness he found himself in.
The healer left his hand on the curious poultice for a moment longer, murmuring a prayer to Heshtail, then moved on. He was looking increasingly unwell himself. He had been asleep when the summons came and had not even paused to throw anything over his nightshirt. For the last three hours, he had struggled to save a life that, to all appearances, should already have been lost. His own energies were rapidly depleted and it was not mere piety that made him invoke the gods, but desperation also.
Groans of disbelief and one delighted laugh as the dice clattered across the table. “Ah, lucky again, that means I win all of this lovely pile. You gentlemen are certainly having a terrible run tonight. Perhaps I should leave you a coin or two to donate to Calbran, turn things around.”
The hositan stood up on her chair, gathering up her winnings. As he watched his coins disappear into the woman`s purse, a seed of suspicion planted in his mind, Valmir frowned hard at the cheerful little creature, then snatched up the dice and frowned at them. They felt slippery in his hands, as though they wanted to be rolled.
He looked again at the smile shining back at him, remembering every story warning against games of chance with halflings. Liars and cheats, born coin-hungry and sticky-fingered, the lot of them, and here was proof. Valmir wondered if they thought their size and innocent looks would always work in their favour. This one looked completely calm to have her dice in his hand.
It seemed to him that they wriggled of their own accord. Maybe it was some kind of gutter magic at work. Hemming and hawing, Valmir let them roll. Then he let them roll again, and again, and again, letting the rumblings around him swell from disbelief to anger as the trick was revealed.
The hositan`s grin did not falter for an instant, even as fists were raised. “Clearly the Lucky Lord is smiling on you at the moment. What a shame our game is already over and I must, oh that one was almost close, fare-thee-well sirs!”
Valmir overturned the table with a roar, lunging after the thief, following his equally cheated friends. With unfair agility, the hositan evaded the pursuit and darted under a crowd of merchants. More importantly, she also darted under their bodyguards, into which most of Valmir`s friends careened. He had breath enough to groan as he saw what was about to happen and smartly stepped away from the ensuing brawl.
He spotted the giggling creature just a few paces away, doubled up in glee. “I`ll learn you to cheat me,” he muttered to himself, grabbing a stool and hurling it at the oblivious thief.
At least, he had thought she was oblivious. At the last possible moment, she jumped to one side, meeting Valmir`s furious gaze with her own mocking one. Behind her, the thrown stool impacted against the counter, the sound curiously muffled. Almost as though it had not been wood-on-wood, but rather wood-on-flesh.
Valmir stood in shock as a living mountain of muscle and sinew grew in his field of vision, the cheating hositan all but forgotten. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with skin tanned to leather from years of frontier farm labour. But face-to-navel with this giantess, he had a sudden insight into how the halflings must feel every day among humans – and why they were so adept at tricking others into fighting their battles.
Bitch planned this, was the last coherent thought he had, before a hand larger than his head gripped him by the jerkin and flung him twenty feet through the far window and into darkness.
There was a wet clatter when the final, bloodied tooth was dropped onto the dish beside him and the healer was able to seal the last puncture. With all that he could do having been done, he sat back against a wall and looked at what he had pulled from the child. Seven blood-stained ivories winked back at him in the lantern`s light.
He shuddered and turned to Alberich. “How many wolves did they say? Four, was it? Mm-hmm. Look at the size of that one. Timberwolf from the north, must be. Even so starved as to have come this far south, they would have given your average mercenary pause. And he beat them down.”
“Take my advice. When he can walk again, take him to the temples. Start with giving thanks to Heshtail for the mercy shown. The priests will know what to do. Your boy is clearly fated for something and it is unwise for us mortals to defy the gods.”
Alberich grimaced. The celestial matters of gods and destinies and fates were beyond him. He would do what the elf-blood suggested, of course, he was not so foolish as to disagree on that score. But it was only a small part of him that swelled in pride to think of his son being singled out by divine powers for some unknowable, greater purpose.
At least this healer had proven himself worth the title. All too often these wanderers were compulsive liars, deranged cheats and worse, only interested in deceiving honest folk like himself in their times of need. Alberich had seen enough of their type before to have a sense that this one was different, but he had also been fooled by hope several times before.
These thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice from outside. “Good sir! Trouble at the Fatted Hog! You are needed at once, good sir, please hurry!”
Alberich heroically refrained from cursing the gods, seeing as how they had already taken an interest in his family. Instead, he walked to the front door and looked out, confirming his suspicions that it was one of the stable-boys from the inn. No doubt some drunkard had started a fight again over coin or woman. Or both, he admitted, as that was more likely to be the case these days. But when he heard the details, he knew that the message had not been for him.
With a grunt of effort, picked up the great hammer that rested by the door. It had been expertly crafted, left undecorated as a reminder that it was a weapon and not an ornament, shaft of flame-hardened ironwood sourced from the Wolf Woods of Anaria, pitted steel banding set along its length to aid in grip. There was no finer example of the smith`s art to have passed through Tanner`s Rest and Alberich could not help but admire it.
So it was with some reluctance that he turned and handed the simple, beautiful weapon to its half-elven owner, waiting patiently behind him. The incongruously delicate paladin bore the weight easily, smiled reassuringly at Alberich, then raced off down the track, his bloodied and sweat-stained nightshirt flapping in the wind. Alberich was silent for a few moments, watching the man who had saved his son raise more dust than a chariot, and wondered at this apparent second wind.
“Elf-blood,” he muttered in mingled envy and disdain, then went back to sit by the side of his son.
The scene was one of devastation. Bodyguards, militiamen and common brawlers lay scattered outside the Fatted Hog, nursing wounds inflicted on each other and casting nervous glances towards the continuing noise from within. Many looked as though they had attempted to impose some kind of order, but had evidently had little success. The half-elf ignored them and strode through the shattered doors, face blacker than a storm-cloud. Taking quick stock of the situation, he brought down the warhammer, letting its thunderous impact draw attention to him.
“Put them down,” he commanded, barely contained rage in his voice. “Do not pretend ignorance. Do not try to be clever. Put them down.”
He spoke to the back of the living mountain, now the only thing standing. Held over her head was a bench to which four confused, battered men clung desperately. They looked even more confused when the bench was gently set down, allowing them to stagger up and out. Other than their dazed moans of pain, there was silence in the ruins of the coaching inn. When they had left, the half-elf permitted himself to vent.
“I won`t accept any excuses this time. This is the third time in as many villages. You are causing these people more damage than any marauding orcs! If you cannot control yourself, then you must be controlled by other means! Is that not an Aslaug tenet? Perhaps you should try living by it.”
For a brief moment, the living mountain had tensed, showing the first signs of anger, before the truth of the chastisement sunk in. However, a colossal finger was pointed up at the rafters in a meaningful gesture. The paladin nodded grimly.
“Yes indeed. Again, Isolde. Third time in as many villages. You are straining my patience to limits untested even by Embla. Now get yourself back down to ground level before I do something we all regret.”
There was another pause before the hositan dropped from her hiding place. “But Aodhaen, why must it always be me who started something?”
“Because you stole from my satchel and trying to distract me with the elder pronunciation is your standard attempt to deflect attention from that. How could you be so staggeringly stupid as to use Bucca`s Dice to gamble with?”
Isolde shrugged. “It was just a laugh, Aidan, so nothing bad should have happened. They`re not supposed to work for humans anyway. Not my fault this ornery oversized ogre got in the way of furniture meant for me neither, no offence, Embla.”
Embla shook her head, a faint smile on her lips. It became completely invisible when she noticed that Aidan was wholly unamused. The paladin was like that, she had noticed. Almost a friend for much of the time, a worthy companion in battle and utterly lacking in virtues other than those of his depressingly staid religion. Even before he spoke, she knew what he would say.
“Isolde, you will start by returning every last thing you cheated, yes cheated, these people out of. You will then pay for the damages out of your own pocket, to be shared equally with Embla. I expect the pair of you to clear up your mess and repair what you can, whilst I try to repair our standing among our hosts.”
Aidan narrowed his eyes still further. “And for the love of Khuldul, where is Brokk?”
Ask anyone. From the grunting savages of the farthest west, to the honey-tongued erudites of the east, all will answer the same. Dwarves are surly, grasping, miserly, hairy, stubborn rock-lovers. Even the average dwarf would agree. So why was it, Aidan wondered, that Brokk was such an anomaly? That once he had been no different to the rest of his people was known, but exactly what happened to change him so completely remained a mystery. It hadn`t changed him entirely for the better, either.
“Brokk. Look at me.” Aidan futilely waved his hand in front of the dwarf`s blank eyes, then shook him with rather less care than was merited. A violent shudder ran through the dwarf and light returned to his eyes. He looked around him, unsure of where he was.
“How`s the translation coming along?” asked Aidan, knowing from painful experience how best to bring him back to reality.
Brokk blinked several times, brow furrowed. His granite eyes met the emerald ones of Aidan and vague understanding bloomed within. Hesitantly, he smiled. Then he looked back down at the stone tablet before him, its surface covered with symbols from no language Aidan had ever seen. The smile faded.
“Poorly,” Brokk replied at last, his voice emerging hoarse from a parched throat. “I believed I had resolved the nature of the tertiary occlusion cipher. But applying it reduced the ablative-core equation by an irrational figure instead of a prime. I was attempting to reconcile this with the seven most likely alternatives, to no discernible success.”
Aidan nodded as though he understood the slightest part of that, then gently patted the dwarf on the back. Brokk sighed, clearly disappointed with another failure, then sat up straight and looked hard at Aidan. The half-elf inclined his head to the open door. Through it, Brokk could see what remained of the common room of the Fatted Hog. He winced.
“You went very deep into yourself, Brokk,” Aidan said. “This happened not ten feet from you and there you stayed. Khuldul preserve you, my friend, because it seems as though you cannot.”
The dwarf rubbed a hand over his hairless scalp, baring his teeth in embarrassment. This was not the first time something like this had happened. One day, they both suspected, he would enter his meditative trance and either not come out, or be killed before his allies could prevent it.
As she piled up the wreckage, a question struck Embla. “Isolde? What are these Bucca`s Dice?”
The hositan snickered. “A con. Bucca is one of our gods. He made a bet with the creator of my people, Bunga, told you about him? Well, details don`t matter, they`re very intricate. In short, Bucca wanted to win, so he made these special dice so he would always win and his enemies would always lose, and Bunga told him that he wouldn`t win a single roll.”
“So Bucca starts going around, challenging other gods to games of chance and, of course, he always wins, no matter how clever they were. Then Bucca claimed he`d won the bet. So Bunga told him that it was the dice which had won, not him. Bucca threw the dice down in anger and they turned up unlucky for him. Bunga is still laughing. It`s one of our minor feast days, celebrating that one.”
Embla rubbed the back of her neck, confused. “So this story warns that your pride is your own enemy?”
“I...what? No, why would that make sense? Bucca was outwitted because he thought that he was winning, but in fact it was just something he had made, which Bunga knew, which Bucca only understood at the end of all his hard work, which Bucca hates doing. Bunga beat Bucca because Bucca blamed Bunga. All very simple.”
This time, Embla just nodded sagely. It was the arratti, the hositan as they called themselves, that were clearly the simple part of all this. She was still unsure as to from where the humans of this grim land got their impression that their "halfling" cousins were cunning and inventive. Perhaps it was because, by comparison to the dullards that seemed to make up the vast majority of the human population, the arratti were smarter.
They were endearing little creatures in their own peculiar way, she admitted to herself. It might even be possible, with patient tuition, that they could manage simple tasks among the Risarvinnae. The problem with that, naturally, was that those were assigned to the children. Without the early discipline this imposed, only catastrophe could follow. A dilemma if ever there was one.
From the adjacent room, Embla could hear the elf-blood talking with the malformed dwarf. Easy words to know. So similar to the old tongue. Perhaps because elves and dwarves were themselves of older, purer origins than the humans. The truth of their names simply resisted corruption better. Less so than the arratti. Their word for themselves was hositan. It lacked any meaning, history, vitality.
Embla looked over at Isolde, watching her clever fingers weave patterns with coin and knife in idle play. Yes, they were clearly a simple folk, but they had potential. It was just something that needed to be drawn out of them, as maturity from childishness. And there was the answer to the problem. All she had needed to do was consider it differently and the solution would present itself. Teach the arratti, the halflings, how to behave properly, then they teach the children. Her kin would then have more time free to perfect themselves.
She smiled at Isolde, pleased with herself. Isolde smiled back, as happy to let Embla do all the work as Embla was to do it. Besides, Isolde liked being well-rested when Aidan`s temper subsided. A bit of gentle teasing of his half-apologies, half-lectures was always good fun, and so much easier if you weren`t tired out from provoking one. He was a long way from being one of the golden heroes of children`s stories, and minstrel`s songs, but he genuinely tried.
And anyway, it wasn`t as though the rest of them were paragons of virtue, either.
“You still haven`t explained just what we are doing in this eyesore of a desolate waste.”
“It is not desolate, Isolde, it is the bread basket of half of Daven and an important route through to Kale. With the Mistyhead cutting off most passage save for Necrovia and Laub, keeping the ford through to the forest clear is a necessity.”
Isolde blew a raspberry. “Which is not an explanation when no notices were posted, no rumors flew around and no other down-on-their-luck idiots started making their way here. What is it, Aidan? You`ve been avoiding the question since Victoria. How many miles even was that? Two hundred? Three hundred? I don`t actually want to know, Brokk, thank you very much though.”
The dwarf did not quite close his mouth, so the answer was only muffled. It was, however, considerably more than three hundred miles, most of which had been painstakingly done on foot. The bizarre outbreak of the strangles had made horses one of the rarest animals in all Daven, causing a knock-on famine as the farmers were unable to bring in proper harvests. That it had originated somewhere near the Ruin Woods was about all that was known - so at least, many a Davenian had pronounced with morbid glee, the Kalish were doubtless suffering too.
Aidan still didn`t look around, so Isolde played her trump card. “I thought you paladins were supposed to tell the truth?”
As it always did, this worked. Aidan stopped in his tracks and groaned. Both he and Isolde knew that, technically speaking, the holy oaths he had taken did not prevent deceit by omission, but even that was troubling to the half-elf. She didn`t know exactly why and didn`t care. She was just happy to be getting an actual answer.
“We were asked for, specifically, by name,” he began, doing his utmost to ignore Isolde`s glittering smile. “By the locals of the woods. They call themselves the Circle of Twelve Moons. They...they are a warlock coven.”
Isolde`s smile disappeared immediately. Embla spat reflexively and even Brokk forked his hand to ward away bad luck. The horrific memories of Mavarra were still fresh. How the Flayer had laughed, even at the end...it did not bear thinking about. For several seconds, Aidan bore the glares at his back stoically, then stiffened his resolve.
“I swore to destroy such evil wherever I found it, did I not? Have you ever known me to break a promise made before the gods? No, you have not. So I ask you to trust me when I say that I will destroy the Circle, with your help if you are so willing, should we discover proof that they have fallen to darkness.”
“But it is not the Circle themselves who want our help. Not exactly, as I understand it. They are acting as intermediaries for a third party. Their message didn`t give any specifics. There was mention of a great threat and of commensurately great rewards.”
Brokk snorted in derision, but both Embla`s and Isolde`s concerns seemed mollified, though by different parts of the argument. The dwarf looked hard at Aidan, quietly judging the merits and the risks. Without thinking, he reached into his greatcoat, checking that the tablet was still there. Relief washed over and through him, pushing away the insignificant concerns of his life and soul. They were immaterial, unlike the tablet. That was all that mattered.
Aidan could see his companions were accepting of, if perhaps unhappy about, their next quest. He had known Isolde would come around the moment a reward was mentioned - one of the few times her greed was appreciated – and had suspected Brokk would draw strength from his totem. But Embla`s response was the one which worried him. Her actions at Mavarra had been their own kind of monstrous. The risk of putting her back in a situation where she might repeat them had almost swayed him against accepting the invitation.
Ultimately, however, he chose to trust her. He owed her that much, at least.
It was not so much orcs, but goblins that were the recurring pest in this part of Zeland. They tended to stay in the hills overlooking Doldor, squabbling among themselves, then sweeping down the Shannon River in crude dugouts whenever a particularly vicious leader backstabbed its way to the top long enough to declare a raid.
Aidan had faced them before, albeit from the battlements of Doldor`s thick walls. Now he was hearing of the approach when he was stuck in a still-unnamed village without so much as a palisade. The rangers had warned the refugees to move further west rather than try to settle here, but there was only so far even a desperate man could drag himself. Aidan pushed away the knowledge that, no matter how valiantly he fought, these people would die in droves. In all likelihood, he would join them in death.
It was far from the heroic demise he had envisioned, even hoped for after taking the oath. Servants of the gods of good had their faith tested cruelly in the occupied territories. They needed to adapt, or be discovered and executed long before they should have been. Aidan himself had evaded detected only by the narrowest of margins back in Ettinrun, ducking into a procession of pilgrims and inexpertly joining in their flagellation.
Thinking of this reminded him that runners had been sent to Doldor and Ettinrun, hoping against hope that aid would come in time. The goblins would certainly be driven back into the hills - though they were technically allied to the dark powers that ruled here, their wild ways had a tendency to make collecting taxes difficult - but the chances of this happening before they looted this region were extremely low.
Aidan held back a despairing sigh. He had gone against his father's wishes by seeking out the hidden shrines to Heshtail, the Lord of Mercy. He had gone against his own common sense by pledging himself to the service of that god and vowing to fight back against the forces of evil. A weakening faith and aching scars was all he had to show of four futile years.
Looking towards the smoke spires on the horizon, where the goblins waited for dusk, Aidan suddenly felt more at peace than he had since becoming a paladin of Heshtail. The certainty of his death washed away his other, petty concerns for the future. He would have liked to have lived longer, but there was no use to be had in what-ifs and mayhaps. His fate was to be met here. His hand rested on the mace at his side, wondering when their time together was to end.
The first he knew of the attack was when an arrow hissed past his ear and buried itself into the man behind him. Aidan heard his last breath rattle in his throat and his body crumpling to the earth. A sneering, cackling goblin with one eye leaped out at him from the darkness, thrusting a flint-tipped spear at his gut. Aidan parried and countered with a two-handed blow that split open the goblin's skull.
Then battle proper was upon him. The wild goblins swarmed, stabbing at anything they didn't like the look of, including each other on occasion. A few had been carrying concealed torches, which they now used to set the buildings aflame. Their weapons were hardly more advanced than those of the villagers, but they had the advantage of numbers and of night-vision.
Aidan`s senses were as keen as theirs and he had the advantage of height. Whereas the goblins needed to strike upwards to hit anywhere vital, Aidan was able to bring his mace down with devastating force, shattering bone and helmet and shield with equal ease. One, more cunning than the rest, didn't try to stab him, but swept at his ankles, hoping to knock him off-balance. Had the goblin not been trying this on a creature three times its weight, the tactic might even have worked. The paladin thought he saw a look of surprise on the goblin's face before he killed it.
Elsewhere, the battle was going against the villagers. A terrible baying rose on the other side of the battlefield, as the wolves closed in, urged onwards by stunted goblins on their backs. The riders of these beasts were often in as much danger as their intended prey, for goblins had no concept of domestication and merely tried to browbeat their mounts into obedience.
To the paladin, the howls were a sign that his doom was nearly upon him. Determined to take as many with him as possible, he redoubled his efforts. A green-blooded swathe of destruction was carved into the goblins` ranks as Aidan fought his way towards the last huddle of villagers.
Their nerve already wavering by his refusal to die, the goblins scattered at his approach, sensibly deciding to let the wolf riders deal with him. Exhausted, bleeding from a dozen small wounds, Aidan let out a hoarse scream of defiance. It drew the attention of one particular goblin, bedecked in fetishes and paint, and carrying what looked like a carved human or elven thigh-bone.
Smiling evilly, the shaman pointed the wand at Aidan and spoke a word of command. A spray of glowing missiles emerged from the tip and slammed into Aidan, nearly driving the breath from his lungs. He stumbled, but caught himself just in time. The shaman's smile did not waver and activated the wand again. This time, Aidan fell to his knees, coughing violently in a futile attempt to catch his breath.
Reassured by this display of power, the goblins regrouped and began to taunt the dazed paladin, poking at him with spear and dagger in sadistic play. Aidan felt his mace slip from his fingers. The excited screams of the raiders reached a fever pitch and their fading shapes capered madly around him. As the last spark of consciousness left him, it seemed as though a great bronzed colossus was approaching to claim him for the afterlife.
He hoped he had done Heshtail proud.
Aidan opened his eyes. There were tree branches overhead and the sound of birds calling through the morning mists. He had a lingering ache in his muscles, no doubt a memory of his last moments alive. Perhaps it was a way of coming to terms with your passing.
In truth, it was the afterlife itself that was more surprising to him. Such a natural, minimalist setting, more suited to what he had thought would be the reward of a druid or ranger. Aidan had thought to find himself in a temple or suchlike, but perhaps this was a part of his elven heritage. He tried to sit up, struggling to free himself from the heavy, strange-smelling furs that he was apparently wrapped in.
“Stay still, villtri. Much wounds to close up yet. You`re not going nowhere until I am thinking you good for travel.”
The voice was feminine, but of a strong and confident timbre that Aidan had never heard in any woman. It must surely belong to one of Heshtail`s angels, though the accent was strange. Then Aidan thought that the words were strange also, for they implied he was in the process of healing. But if he was dead, what was he meant to be recovering from? He turned his head, looking for the speaker and yelped in surprise.
Even hunched over the remains of the campfire, the woman was clearly at least twice his size, in height as well as across the shoulders. She had the build of a successful hunter, one whose body was a tool to be perfected, for it meant life or death for an entire community. Even at a glance, it was clear she was not a native to these lands, nor any that Aidan had ever heard of. It was also clear that he was entirely at her mercy.
“Forgive me, lady,” he managed to say in a polite, formulaic tone. “I was merely surprised to find myself alive. I had thought myself dead for certain. It is still difficult to believe that this is not the afterlife.”
“You nearly dead still, villtri,” the woman answered, lips curled in what might be construed as a smile. “But I am not your bannarad. Or not whatever Ylsmyr chooses to send aelfarrir.”
Aidan struggled to follow her meaning, uncertain of several words. He could hazard a guess at 'aelfarrir', for it had enough similarities with the languages he knew to suggest it meant his race, or what she thought his race was, but the rest was beyond him.
Noticing his confusion, the woman frowned and tapped her head, trying to find the right words. “Villtri is the not-thought. If hurt and move makes more hurt, then you try to move is not-thought. Bannarad is the one who teaches your second life, when you die. Aelfarrir is what you are. And Ylsmyr is who Ylsmyr is.”
Aidan was not entirely sure he understood any better than he did previously. He wondered if she was calling him a fool for trying to move when injured, which would be a justified comment, depending on how bad his injuries were. Still, if he was alive, that meant the goblins had been repulsed from the village, or whatever was left of it. He was just about to broach the topic when his brain finally remembered what the smell of the furs was.
“Many wolves, many goblins,” the woman commented, noticing his horrified expression. “Runner for help found me on way to city. Village was ash when I arrive, but you still alive. Had to make many dead before they run. Skin wolves to help to start to heal you. I buried your dead. I hear you do that.”
Aidan nodded mutely and the woman gave a genuine smile. “Good. I am learning truth then. That is why I come to your land. To learn truth about you. Take home when I go back. You fight the bad things, I think, that is why you walk from village to village. Good. Now rest until the good healers come. Then we decide what to do with you, where you go next. Maybe you will walk with me for a while, learn truth about Embla Aslaug.”
So Aidan rested, little knowing that he had just met the first of the finest, truest companions he would ever have.
Naxartes was nervous, but more importantly, he looked nervous. The aspirants were already whispering in their tiny minds, a discordant buzzing at the rear of his awareness. One of them had come dangerously close to insubordination and had been punished accordingly. Although discipline had been outwardly restored, Naxartes knew better than to assume it was inwardly restored also. It was only the thoughts of the least members of the coven that were open to him, sliding along the webs of sorcery that had been laid down in the ancient woods. He needed to appear confident, brazen even, to keep them in line. At this precise moment, he did not feel confident.
The warlock forced himself to ignore the aspirants. Ultimately, they were an irrelevance. Not so those who had been invited here. They had already proven themselves capable of destroying a smaller coven. The Circle was too great to be threatened by them, of course, but individuals were certainly at risk. Individuals of singular intelligence and ambition, such as himself, Naxartes knew, who would one day have power enough to assume control of the coven. Small wonder he had been appointed to receive the 'guests'.
With his inner eye, he peered across the miles to where his familiar kept watch on the forest edge. Imp, so named because it was an imp and Naxartes had never felt it worth his while to be considerate about the matter, was likely adequate for this menial purpose. The warlock doubted Imp could be useful in more important capacities and was not inclined to risk failure by experimentation. That was the most valuable use for aspirants, after all.
The warlock`s breath caught in his throat when at last he saw the invited party. They seemed so - so very ordinary, in their own way. He briefly examined the hositan, noting with disgust that she was attempting to eat an apple and engage in conversation at the same time. She seemed typical of her kind and of little interest, so he turned his attention elsewhere.
The half-elf was clearly Zelish, for no other people had that offensively red hair. Tracing the other half of his heritage would be more difficult, Naxartes knew. It was the altarim breed of elf that was best known for mating outside their race, but it was the elusive ranarim breed which was more likely to appear in Zeland. Perhaps their shared homeland accounted for the continued partnership between paladin and thief, he considered, swiftly deciding that this was the most reasonable conclusion.
The other woman was clearly some kind of Erunian mongrel. Even one untrained in the art of phrenology would be able to tell that, if not from the subtle indicators, than from her obvious monstrosity. Ogre blood was more likely than troll when it came to enlarging the human form. Naxartes decided that he would turn her against the others if violence proved necessary, rather than waste his energies on a superior mind to hers. Besides, who would suspect him of choosing such a lowly target? It was such an obvious tactic that actually using it would bewilder the others.
Finally, the dwarf, by birth if not appearance. Naxartes had heard stories of this one, some of them even confirmed by this examination. Some great disaster had befallen his hold, killing most and scattering the rest. Colossal magical forces had ravaged his flesh, apparently ageing him centuries, yet kept from killing him by the link he shared with an artifact of innumerable and unlikely descriptions. Certainly the magical auras he bore indicated an item of some power, but nothing of the magnitude, or importance, suggested by most of the tales.
Naxartes felt a little cheated. These did not seem so terrible as he had been led to believe. The coven in Mavarra must have been an especially pitiful example, scarcely deserving of the name, to have been brought low by these uninspiring wanderers. The warlock consoled himself with the pleasant thought that they could not possibly be a threat to him.
“All right, what if we make it just five crowns? Five crowns says whoever meets us is trying to look intimidating and mysterious. Red and black, tall collar, men with that ridiculous goatee or women with gold-inlaid bone jewelry.”
Isolde shook her head again, an unecessarily dramatic sigh escaping her. “Aidan, I`m never going to accept a bet that I know I will lose. Not for a rusted pfennig, I wouldn`t. I appreciate you trying to make me feel at home, but you are remarkably bad at it. You need to start low and go high, not the other way around, for starters.”
Aidan made a face, as though disappointed. An act, of course, the old familiar routine they went through to be relaxed during a meet. He would offer Isolde the chance to lose money, she would nobly refuse and ask Brokk if he was ever going to turn his hand to transmutation. Brokk would counter that he was very good at turning naughty halflings into newts. He or Embla would ask if he was good at turning them back again, then the other would express surprise that anyone would want to have a halfling accompany them instead of a polite newt.
Variations of this had kept them going since Mavarra. Before then, they had not truly been life-bonded. They had fought and bled together, but it had been a professional relationship. Aidan had fully intended to arrest Isolde when they reached Or City, then take his leave of the others. After that encounter, things had changed.
“Witch-pet watching us ahead,” Embla growled, bringing an early end to the diversion. “See those leaves, pulled into a nest? It is trying to hide by not being seen, but forgot its bed.”
Perhaps realizing the game was up, a disheveled crow suddenly appeared in the makeshift bed of leaves, letting out a faint caw of embarrassment at its mistake. It flapped into the air, sending a shower of mangy feathers flying, then began to flit from tree to tree, waiting for them to follow before moving deeper into the forest.
Aidan looked at Brokk for confirmation and the dwarf nodded. The crow had been invisible, which meant it was either an imp in disguise or under the effects of a remarkably potent spell. As this was the territory of warlocks, it was probably an imp. That meant trouble for Aidan. Imps rarely signed on as familiars to warlocks that were not beholden to fiendish masters. Aidan would need to be sure what the patron of this coven was before committing to bloodshed, but he no longer held onto his earlier hope.
He remained uncharacteristically silent as they followed the familiar through the hidden paths back to its master.
Naxartes was pleased to see he was taller than the half-elf, making it easier to look down his nose at the Zelish. He would have to content himself with imperious sniffs to the Erunian brute. Studiously, he ignored the hositan making an inane comment about not accepting a wager.
He graciously allowed Imp to settle on his shoulder. It would bolster his image as a wielder of terrible powers, at least in the eyes of these uncultured louts. The warlock flung his arms above his head, small flames dancing in his upturned palms. It never hurt to add to an impression when all it cost was the most paltry of cantrips. He noted both the dwarf and the Erunian were looking in frank disbelief at him, clearly convinced of the extent of his powers.
“I bid thee welcome unto mine domain,” he intoned with ritual solemnity, gratified to see the halfling cover her face and shake in awe. “Know that thou art in the presence of The Walker of Many Ways. For so long as thou art respectful, mine grim wrath shalt not be roused from its slumber.”
Even the paladin appeared to have been struck dumb by his majesty. For the first time, Naxartes understood what it meant to have true power over another. The manipulation and tormenting of the aspirants was finally reduced to its true state of meaninglessness. To command the fear and obedience of a man who had pledged his life and his soul to the destruction of the very forces that had teased his innate power forth - ah, that was sublime!
“Thou shalt follow in mine footsteps, tread only where I tread, lest thou strayest to less safe paths. Speak not to those we may pass, for their duties are of too great importance to suffer distraction. Guests though thou art here, thine welcome is most tenuous.”
As was his grip on these absurd linguistics, Naxartes thought, but there was no denying their effectiveness. Feeling as though he would be pushing his luck by continuing to speak, he whirled on his heel and beckoned imperiously for the group to follow. He was so pleased by the effect he had on them, he quite failed to hear Embla whisper to the others: “Now on, new bet. So mad, thinks we`re stupid. First to laugh must pay.”
Isolde, already wiping away a tear, promptly bit her cheeks to stay quiet. Laughter was all well and good only when it came after trouble, not before.