The Mists of Daven
By R. Krommydas
"There`s a definite...yup, see? I`m starting to see a pattern in the traps here."
Isolde resisted the urge to swing a fist at Baldrin, her ostensible brother-in-arms but actual millstone-around-neck. She knew the only reason he had been so recommended was because he was the guildmaster`s nephew. Incompetence was only to expected with this sort of nepotism, but Isolde had not truly appreciated just how utterly lacking in any graces Baldrin actually was.
Now, with his leg caught firmly in the third snare of the night, the young thief waited expectantly for Isolde to cut him loose, cheerfully and loudly humming. Shivers of barely controlled rage ran down Isolde`s spine, the knife in her hand shaking. Had she not so desperately needed the coin, she would cut him loose all right, piece by piece, freeing his soul from his body. Instead, she forced a smile, put a finger to her lips for the umpteenth time and severed the cord.
Baldrin fell back to earth, picked himself up, dusted himself off, and flashed what he doubtless thought was a cheeky, rakish grin at her. Then he set off again towards the main building of the estate, sparing nary a glance around him for any more traps or patrols. It was almost as if, Isolde thought, he had heard of the stereotype of the halfling rogue and wanted to be the exact opposite. Clumsy, not skilled. Thoughtless, not cunning. Loud, not stealthy.
She crept up to the wall, trying to ignore her hopeless companion and focusing instead on the reward. All she had to do was break in, retrieve the ducal signet ring, return it to the Gentleman`s Association of Acquisitions-- a fine title indeed for a guild of thieves, and a misleading one at that, for a more chaotic and treacherous rabble of scoundrels she had never encountered-- and the dividends would be enough to bribe half the officials back in Zel City for a year. Or maybe buy one of the higher agents for three, maybe even four months! The security would be unbelievable.
Isolde held her breath as a guard turned the corner. An orc-blooded creature of some kind, bred for strength and stamina. The hiring of such was one of the more recent peculiarities of the Silver Duke, who had already been infamous for being "eccentric." Such as when he had declared war on his own apiaries for treason-- which had merely been mildly amusing-- or, more fantastically, when he appointed Russell Starsulking II, his prize stallion, as steward of his lands.
What the unwilling namesake of this horse, Lord Russell Starsul, perhaps the most powerful noble in all Kelerak, thought of all this was the subject of much hushed speculation. There had been whispers among the denizens of Wyvernia`s underworld that a grandmaster of the Unvoiced Order had been contracted to avenge the insult, but the continued life of the Silver Duke suggested no hiring of assassins.
The orc-blood paused in its patrol, scratching at its nape with the sharp edge of its halberd. Isolde boggled at the sight, wondering if perhaps she had encountered the only creature in the world more stupid than Baldrin. At least it meant the guards were not on any kind of alert yet, despite Baldrin`s best efforts. She stayed silent, motionless, in the shadows, barely breathing as the idiot creature turned back onto its path. Now, if only they could stay undetected for another thirty seconds.
"Hey Isolde!" Baldrin called over to her happily. "I think I found the hidden entrance! Come on, before we`re noticed!"
Her furious thrill was orgasmic in intensity.
Isolde had to admit, the duke had been remarkably calm about the whole thing. When she and Baldrin had been dragged before him, bruised and chained, she cursing up a storm at the incompetent wretch, the duke hadn`t hesitated to offer the pair the chance to try the new batch of Old Norey`s Eastern Blend he had just had imported the other day, all the way from the gardens of Ladona would you believe, of course the tariffs were absolute daylight robbery these days.
His seneschal, on the other hand, was clearly far less benign. Perhaps it was the perpetual sneer on his face, or the venomous contempt with which he addressed the pair, or the frustrated sycophancy he directed towards the duke in demand for their execution. More likely, Isolde thought, it was just the fact that he was an orc and they were very edible-looking playthings.
"Oh my word, Koorlsh, do relax a bit!" the Silver Duke had exclaimed, elbowing the orc jovially. "You act as though these two were readying themselves to preach about how salvation is open to all who follow the one true god, Bunga Proudfoot! Now, let`s hear no more nonsense about thieves and plots and violence and all that nasty sort of stuff. It is hardly polite to treat guests in this manner."
The orc bristled visibly, then a cruel look had come into his eyes that Isolde had dreaded seeing. "Of course, most enlightened lord and master. I shall naturally see to the placing of your dear guests into quarters best suited to them, and personally too."
Isolde felt the courtly phrasing was ruined somewhat by the orc`s harsh tones, which made her stomach churn, but the Silver Duke was evidently pleased by this and bade them all a good night, as it was getting late and, regrettably, he had an early luncheon to attend on the morrow with the Striped Queen Ippotigris to discuss a peace treaty between Kelerak and her unicorn army. As soon as he had departed, the orc had indeed, personally, seen them into the dungeons. It was only when he dismissed the guards and wheeled in a small cart, a blood-stained cloth draped over the top, that Isolde`s deepest fears were confirmed.
"Miserable, ugly, undersized, dirt-digging rat-lovers," he growled at them. "I haven`t spent the last four years slaving away beneath the notice of my so-called superiors to see you undo everything at the last minute! Now, we are going to have a long talk about who sent you and how they found out. And you are going to tell Koorlsh all the little details I am missing, because each time you tell the truth, you will have less pain to look forward to."
He removed the cloth to reveal a hideous assortment of tools, each belonging to that grim school of thought which asked its adherents to become as personal with their victims as possible. Judging from the assured, easy manner in which the torturer-seneschal made his first selection, he was an experienced adherent to this philosophy. Isolde`s throat locked up in terror. There was nothing she could say that would make this easier on her-- the whys had not been her concern when accepting the job. She only hoped that none of Baldrin`s desperate attempts to save his own skin thus had been listened to.
"My uncle..." Baldrin started to say, swallowing hard when the orc turned his merciless gaze onto him. "My uncle is a very important thief. Too important to go out on small runs like this. We`re just humble gutter runners. This was our first big job. We didn`t mean to interrupt anything you were doing, honest!"
Seneschal Koorlsh looked unimpressed. "Your earlier babblings were very clear, wretch, as were the insults your friend used whenever you said something." Isolde`s heart sank at this. "You are after the signet ring. Specifically, the ring, nothing else. The ring that I had cursed at enormous expense to make the duke truly insane-- and keep him alive long enough to plunge the rest of Kelerak into civil war."
"And now, at the very cusp of my triumph, worthy of notice by a personage of true importance, come two vile sub-vermin to steal away the lynchpin of my destiny... and I am expected to believe this is accidental? No. No, I can see by your face that it is not. She is ignorant, isn`t she? But you, no, you were given details by your uncle, weren`t you? Why don`t you tell me all about it, hmm?"
Baldrin grunted an assent and Isolde, shocked out of her fear, gave him a glare that would frighten a vampire. Neither he nor the orc acknowledged her. Koorlsh instead motioned for Baldrin to answer, holding up a tool that seemed designed for the slow peeling of flesh. With so clear a threat before him, the already garrulous thief found his tongue completely loosened. Eventually, he ran out of things to say and Isolde wished that she could close her ears as well as her eyes.
Koorlsh had only promised less pain, after all.
A key turned loudly in the lock and the cell door swung open, torchlight burning away the pitch blackness within. Isolde jerked awake, biting back a scream. The nightmare faded, but its replacement was no comfort. When Koorlsh had finished, he had left Baldrin's corpse hanging from the wall. So that Isolde could truly appreciate its artistry, he had said, before she became its twin.
Now it was clearly her turn. Koorlsh had returned to finish his sick entertainment. She turned her head away from the tall shadow in the doorway, burying it as best she could into her shoulder, eyes squeezed shut so tightly it was painful. A sob escaped her as heavy footsteps neared. There was the rustle of cloth and the scraping of metal on metal.
"Now there, young missy, let`s not be crying this early in the morning," said a polite, grandfatherly voice.
Isolde`s eyes snapped open and she looked into the stern, yet compassionate face of the Silver Duke. A moment later, her hand fell to her side, freed from its manacle. She gaped at it, scarcely able to comprehend what was happening. When the key unlocked her other hand, there was a glimmer of understanding and hope. By the time she was wholly unchained, Isolde felt as though she had a tenuous grasp of the situation.
"Remarkable how adept hositan are at escaping when unobserved, is it not?" the Silver Duke asked, diligently relocking each manacle. "Almost as if they have outside help, despite that being clearly impossible."
Isolde opened her mouth, uncertain of what exactly she would say. "Koorlsh cursed your signet ring." It was not what she had expected.
The Silver Duke smiled, patting her head condescendingly. "Of course he did, dear. I`m just sorry he was so rude to you and your poor friend. Now, follow me and I`ll see you out without more trouble. Koorlsh does seem to think sometimes that everyone answers to him instead of me. I don`t think he`ll be in my employ much longer. Too serious, too uptight. Always sending smuggling letters to Orland via Zel City written in drow, or, what do they call it, ah yes, Mordularian to be proper. Not exactly a hobby I condone."
Isolde shivered, the implications many and terrible. Kelerak was no paradise, but it was no longer one of the occupied realms, unlike its neighbors. Koorlsh must have been plotting with the Zelish secret police to cripple Kelerak from within, allowing it to be reconquered. It would explain several quirks to the traps she had disarmed on the way in, especially that nasty counter-weighted one with ettercap silk by the service gate, no doubt acquired from the drow assassins located in Orland.
Following this thought to its conclusion, Isolde saw that only smugglers and thieves could hope to transport the orc`s sensitive letters across the borders. Ideally, it would be thieves who had a Zelish connection, such as among the hositan living in the slums. Thieves who would eagerly sell these secrets to enemies of Koorlsh, easily bought by promises of obscene wealth but who would not be missed once they outlived their usefulness. Isolde shuddered to think of the webs of duplicity in which she had been snared. And from which she had just been freed, meaning she owed the Silver Duke her life-- a debt that, if repaid soon enough, would save more than just one ageing human, but possibly an entire nation.
"I swear to you, lord, upon my very soul, I am telling the truth. Your ring is cursed to affect your judgement."
"Quite, quite, all very serious I'm sure," the Silver Duke replied, clearly not listening in the slightest. "Matters of state are always so dull. Ah, here we are. This carriage will take you back into Dragonspur. A true pleasure to have met you, dear lady. I shall regret not being able to spend more time in your company. Do enjoy the gift; I never could."
Desperately, sensing her chance fading, Isolde tried once more as she was bundled into the carriage. "Please! Don`t use the signet ring!"
"Never do. It has a copper inlay and I have a dreadful allergy. This is just a copy I bring out instead of the real thing. Glad to be rid of it. Have a pleasant journey."
Isolde fell back into the carriage, defeated. Baldrin was dead. She couldn`t go back to his double-dealing uncle. There would be no payment to safeguard her family in Zeland. Koorlsh still had the Silver Duke in the palm of his hand and Kelerak was thus doomed to civil war. Everything had gone wrong. She felt like screaming, so she did so, kicking out like a child having a tantrum. Her foot hit wood and there was a clatter, followed by a very distinct clinking.
She stopped and sat up. She looked hard at the overturned treasury box that had been placed in the carriage along with her. There was a pile of coins spilling from it, and among them, a small circular object glittered. The Silver Duke`s words came back to her. The dullness of state affairs. A gift he was glad to be rid of. For a few minutes, Isolde stared dumbstruck at the ducal signet ring, wondering just what she going to do next.
Finally, she started laughing.
The warlock led them on well-trodden paths through the Ruin Wood, past a would-be shanty town which, if previous experience had taught him anything, Aidan knew would house the lowest orders of the coven. Most of the occupants were thin, wild-eyed wretches, hungry for power and destined never to gain it. Only a very few might one day claw their way into the attention of a true warlock and be permitted to supplicate a greater entity for a pact.
It was typical of the covens in this part of the world. Desperate men and women clustering together, debasing themselves for the amusement of others in the hope that they would eventually learn the mysteries of power. Not so in the occupied lands, where if you were determined to have even the least scrap of potential, you were taken for initiation whether you willed it or no.
Aidan had seen friends suffer this fate. Dissent was dealt with summarily and horrifically. In exchange for complete freedom in recruiting members, covens of warlocks and true casters alike were required to serve without question. There too was dissent met with disproportionate punishment. The secret police, after all, had eyes and ears everywhere.
The contrast between the chaotic brutality of the invaders and the discipline and regimentation that they imposed on their territories was a stark one. Aidan did his best not to think about it. Knowing that he was not strong enough to make any real difference there was painful enough, without also having to consider the consequences of success.
He had mentioned this in passing some months earlier, when they had been swapping histories and some comment or another had caught him off-guard. Had it been Brokk? Yes-- the dwarf had been arguing on a matter of morality with Embla, who seemed unwilling to accept that a nation might be as or more damaged by bloody revolution as by leaving a tyrant in power.
The argument was ended when Aidan pointed out the crux of it depended on victory being possible in the first place. The relative good mood of the evening had also ended at that point. He still felt guilty about that.
Aidan`s journey into memory was halted when the warlock suddenly announced, "We have arrived. Mine custodianship of thee hath come to an end. Go now unto he who requested thy presence."
With that, the warlock turned on his heel and strode purposefully back the way they had come, nearly trampling Isolde in his haste to abandon them. At the last moment, she darted to one side. Childishly, she stuck out her tongue and was rewarded with a remarkably sympathetic look from his familiar. Brokk muttered something inaudible in a tone that suggested it was extremely rude, or at least disparaging.
This charming presence now absent, Aidan turned his attention to whomever had asked for them. For a few seconds, he was confused by the apparent lack of anyone, until Brokk pointed up into the trees. The paladin tensed, hand already moving to his hammer, as the feline shape made itself clear, slid from the branch, and landed in front of them. He forced himself to relax, understanding the nature of their contact.
"Think you lot set a record on working me out," the leopard commented in a curious lilting accent. "Not wrong being cautious, of course. Hate having to smack sense into people not introduced to me."
Aidan took that as a cue and bowed politely. "Well met, wild master. My name is Aidan of Zel, sworn to the service of Heshtail the Merciful. My companions are the esteemed Brokk Ashknarzglimmsun, who bears his name openly; lady Isolde Amero Ballussia, blessed of Calbran; and Embla Villiendr, Aslaug of the Risarvinnae."
Hoping he had pronounced everything properly-- there not being much call for anything more than their given names-- Aidan straightened from his bow and immediately failed to keep his jaw from dropping. The leopard, in defiance of all etiquette, was busy cleaning beneath its tail.
"I would have told you, Aidan," Isolde struggled to get the words out. "But I was convinced Brokk was practicing his illusions on me again."
"And here I was hoping I had miscast the spell and affected myself," Brokk added, equally bewildered.
Embla, like Aidan, had nothing to say.
"Should I assume you isolated the geodesic vectors prior to evoking the cross-ley consciousnesses?" Brokk inquired of the druid. "Else the divinations would be prone to an unacceptable degree of error."
It had taken several minutes for the group to recover themselves enough to proceed with the unorthodox meeting. The druid had variably introduced themselves as Grimoth, Caylay the Kalais, Bessie, Andavor, He of the Darkmane, and Pirip Larkstongue. They had periodically claimed to be male, female, ungendered, human, gnome, orc, and trout. They originated from Farland, Kale, Kelerak, Zeland, Orland, and no land. The only thing that had not changed was the reason for the meeting.
"Never go for that sort of thing," the druid, still in leopard shape, answered a put-out Brokk. "Just followed the other scavengers. Found the cave easy enough. The strangles wasn`t the first to come up from below. Won`t be the last if we don`t do something."
Aidan considered the situation. Their chances of survival were less than promising, but the goal was a noble one indeed. Some evil force had hidden itself beneath the Ruin Wood and started vomiting up diseases and plagues. Most of them had simply been too virulent to be contagious, simply dying along with their first victims. But now it seemed as though they were being refined, enabling them to infect more creatures and spread further.
The druid had managed to locate the entrance to the lair of whatever was behind this, but had come to the conclusion that allies would be needed to destroy the evil. Apparently, the events at Mavarra had given Aidan and his companions something of a reputation in certain circles. Gratifying, in some respects, but troubling in others. Fame and infamy went hand in hand, after all.
"What about guards? Traps? Things like that? Any information you want to share?"
Isolde always had the right questions to ask, thought Aidan, even when he was being distracted by irrelevancies. Between her and Brokk, anything that required cunning or trickery to overcome would fall. Between him and Embla, anything that required brute force would similarly be conquered. And whatever the druid was able to bring could surely only make things easier.
"You know all I know now," the druid replied. "Except for everything you don`t. But you know what I don`t know too."
Isolde looked helplessly at Brokk, who shrugged, then at Embla, who glared and flexed her muscles. The druid may as well have been a cat for all the interest it showed to the implied threat. Instead, it stood up, stretched and yawned.
"No more questions, we should go. Not far, but night soon. You will want to sleep and start in the morning. Always night below ground, so shouldn`t matter. Soonest started, soonest ended, though."
Grudgingly, the truth of the aphorism was accepted and the four companions fell into position behind this bizarre creature.
"Also, Cawlis," the druid said unexpectedly. "Cawlis is my favorite. I think Cawlis was my birth-name. Or just very similar."
As was usual, Embla took the first watch, still untouched by the weariness of a day`s hard marching. She would wake Aidan perhaps three, perhaps four hours later, when the darkness was deepest and his elf eyes were of most use. After him, it would be early bird Isolde`s turn, which she had always seemed inexplicably pleased by. Brokk had used to volunteer to stand watch, but the risk of him slipping into a contemplative trance had been deemed too great.
The familiarity of this routine was its own kind of reassurance, a subtle trust built up between them over many months. Their sleep was more restful, their dreams less troubled, when they knew one of them was on guard. Even when staying at an inn or doss-house, they increasingly maintained the same system despite the ostensibly greater safety than when sleeping rough.
Periodically returning to the fire, Embla made a slow patrol around their camp, listening intently to the forest night. It was a medley of strange sounds, so very different to those of her homeland. There you would be lucky to hear more than the pines singing to the steppe winds, or the rumble of a herd of tuskings moving across the lower slopes.
One nearby sound, however, was familiar. The sawing rasp of a leopard`s call, quite out of place here. Embla turned her head to watch the peculiar druid lope into view, bloodied muzzle attesting to a more eventful patrol than Embla`s own. She was not entirely sure what to make of him. Skinchangers among her people were invariably the result of a curse, though certain stories told of great heroes who had tamed the beast within them.
Far more concerning was his apparent inability to decide on who he was. To the Risarvinnae, names were a history that changed and grew with their owner. To be stripped of one`s name was a more terrible punishment than death, so much so that Embla knew of no instance when it had actually been carried out.
After a while, she could not keep her silence: "What hit you, unnameable?"
The druid looked at her knowingly. "Surprised a bear that thought I was a normal cat. Now what do you really want to ask?"
"You do not have a name that is you," Embla explained, pleased that he had understood. "You only have names that are what others think you are. All others have names that are them. My name is all of me, now and before. Without a name, I am not even nothing, for nothing is its own name."
She made a face. That was not the best she had ever explained something. If only she could speak in her native language, where a single well-inflected syllable could alter the whole meaning of a sentence. The tongue of these realms was a comparatively crude one, perhaps because the nuances had been lost with the development of writing. Embla knew that a purely oral language was necessarily richer.
But it seemed as though he had understood well enough. There was a throaty rumble as he thought it over, then his shape began to melt and flow like heated quicksilver, refashioning itself. When it solidified again, his shape was similar to that of a Risarvinnae man, then swiftly collapsed into a smaller body more like Aidan`s. Even then, tiny changes were taking place without pause, as his skin lightened and darkened in waves, or his eyes tried to decide how many wrinkles to embed themselves in.
After a minute or so of this, the druid finally gave up and returned to leopard form. "It took me three months to relearn the speech of men and as long again to recall that once I belonged to them. Beyond that, I know what you know. If one day you know what I don`t, tell me. Until then, my name is what you will."
Embla nodded, considering the responsibility. This was an important task and needed serious thought. This was not something that should be rushed. Ideally, a name should be given by one of the more senior Aslaug, one who had received training for just such a duty, but Embla was familiar with enough of the details not to be daunted. She wondered if this was perhaps a test. If so, it was one she intended to pass.
Brokk was not asleep. It would be difficult to call him awake either, although he was technically closer to that state. Most of his mind was fixated on the tablet he carried, trying to puzzle out its meaning. A part of his awareness was still linked to the rest of the world, however, as Embla and the druid had their little talk.
It hadn`t been difficult to discern the nature of their new acquaintance. After the initial shock had worn off-- which, he felt sure, had not been quite the same shock experienced by his companions-- Brokk searched his memory for explanations, comparing them with the self-presentation of the druid, from his assumed form to the pattern of his speech. When Embla began to ask her questions, the answers only confirmed his earlier deductions.
"Cawlis" was certainly the oldest name by which the druid thought of himself, making it the most reasonable choice for a birth-name. Even the degenerate variations among the nomads of the easternmost Wild Lands beyond Kale had all but died out, so this suggested either a scholarly ancestor or extreme age. The latter theory had the most support, in particular the mention of having to relearn language-- this meant he had spent so long as an animal, he had forgotten he wasn`t one.
Given what Brokk knew about the normal limitations of druidic shapeshifting, this meant he had been the target of a very old type of transformative magic. Further, given that no known mortal magic could force this type of prolonged change on an actual shapeshifter, Cawlis had been willing to accept it.
All of this suggested many dark things to Brokk. When it came to magic, he was not one to believe in coincidences. Bitter experience had taught him that conspiracy was the most usual truth, whether of mortal or divine origin. Nor was this even one of those rare occasions when coincidence was the most likely cause, for there were simply too many of them all at once.
Brokk was patient. It had formed the core of his education, upon which all else had their foundations laid. The mystery of this druid was one that was solving itself as his past returned to him. Perhaps he would begin forgetting again after the reason for this was over. Brokk`s only concern should that be the case was whether all of the memories returned before the forgetting started. Otherwise there would remain some unanswered questions.
There were enough of those in Brokk`s life.
Days were longer and nights shorter at these altitudes, a quirk of geography that never failed to amaze him upon returning to the hold. The sun could be seen cresting the horizon nearly five minutes before the lowlanders knew of its coming, and its last rays still shone on the mountain peaks when all was dark on the plains below. He had mentioned this to a colleague some years earlier and received a blank look in response.
"What does it matter?" he had been asked and then, as now, Brokk did not have an answer.
All his life it seemed as though the world entire conspired to keep him from having answers. As a child, playing architect, he had seen blocks fall to the floor when he let them go, but none could explain why the similarly unsupported sun and moon did not also fall. When he joined the engineers in the furnaces, they told him of the special oils that would protect his beard, but not why the flames would fail to burn it. In the collegiate, the runepriests explained the importance of using the right sigil for the right ritual, but he had not learned why certain shapes were more suited than others for the same task.
There were times when Brokk felt that sixty years of inquiry had left him with even less understanding than he had been born with. It was like he was caught up in the fabled Maelstrom of the Arned Ocean, that drew all who dared sail it to their doom. Even in the collegiate, where his latent gift for spellcraft had been teased forth and honed, his supposed peers and betters seemed unwilling to question the world.
And then Brokk had been Found. It was the only way to describe the event. A sudden burst of understanding, that he would never have answers if he stayed, forced itself into his mind and lodged there as a hook in a fish. His resolve was only strengthened as his tutors warned in hushed, grim tones against listening to these insidious thoughts.
So it was that he left the hold and marched into the old, unused tunnels that led below the mountain roots. The deeper he went, the more of these passages he found to be blocked off, collapsed or even warded by spell and rune. Eventually, at the nadir of this journey, he was met by his true peers, dwarf and elf and man alike who had been drawn by the desire to know.
From them, Brokk learned the First Answer-- that a mind as inquisitive and powerful as his was difficult to hide, and that the more gifted diviners among their number constantly sought to bring more into the fold. His kin, many miles above them, had known of this gathering and jealously wished to keep him from it, lest one day he uncover truths that would make him greater than they.
Truths, they hinted, that could be gleaned from the study of the artifact they possessed, a tablet actually inscribed with writings in the Tongue Ineffable, the language of the gods once thought unknowable to mere mortals. How could Brokk resist?
When Brokk had still belonged to the order of scholars in his hold, the cruelest of criticisms that could be leveled was surprise that a person was not more athletic, after all the conclusions to which they jumped. The dwarf had felt the sting of those words many a time, yet had failed to quench his thirst for knowledge of any kind. In retrospect, it was unsurprising that he had fallen foul of this flaw once more, which made the tragedy all the greater.
In later years, Brokk would rage at himself, weep bitter tears at his folly, when at the time he had felt so proud to have found the solution. A linguistic shortcut, he claimed, that could accelerate the translation tenfold, but perhaps even more so if outside help was obtained. Persuading his fellows was effortless next to convincing his former kin, but at last the two had been brought together to work on deciphering the tablet.
As with everything, it had been a surprisingly simple solution, retroactively obvious. Where necessary, Brokk implied or promised glory for the hold, or political influence, or great wealth, slowly converting the doubters. He cajoled and bullied and begged and prostrated himself without shame, appealing to whatever nature was most vulnerable. It appeared as though the legendary stubbornness of dwarves wasn't quite so daunting when tested by one of their own.
Work progressed rapidly, seemingly confirming Brokk`s hypothesis. The First Recitation alone produced a breakthrough in the understanding of conjurative sorcery that rivaled the forbidden texts of Ahm. Again and again, the rituals were made and the incantations spoken to unlock the mysteries of the tablet, each Great Recitation revealing more of the world`s hidden truths to them. And all the while, Brokk refined the process, as he thought he was doing, to accelerate it still further.
The Final Recitation was at last scheduled. Preparations lasted a week, with fasting and meditation and cleansing magics. Hands and minds conjoined, all energies focused upon the tablet, the assembled masters of their craft finally readied themselves for ultimate understanding. As the last spellwords were uttered and their minds opened up fully, Brokk felt too late the intent behind those he had united.
Greed, material and otherwise, polluted them like sewage. To his horror, Brokk saw the same corruption in himself, a reckless irresponsibility masquerading as benevolence. He had spent so long trying to convince others that knowledge was worth any price, that it was by its very nature good and pure, that he had come to believe it himself without sparing a thought for the uses to which it might be put.
Desperately, he tore himself free, pleading with the gods that they grant him the chance to right this wrong. His struggles shattered the unity, sending ripples of doubt and fear through the melded minds. A few, far too few, felt as Brokk had, but most were too intent on the rewards for success that he had promised them. There was the briefest of instants when catastrophe might have been averted. Then the final syllable was spoken, commanding the tablet to reveal the ultimate mysteries of creation.
Brokk was unsure of many things that followed. He had felt an indescribable agony, one far deeper than any physical injury, take hold of him. A similar torment had apparently overtaken the others that had assembled, along with every living thing throughout the hold. There were horrors, powers unleashed that were beyond mortal comprehension.
He didn`t know why he alone had been spared. Perhaps the gods had seen fit to answer his desperate prayers, leaving him feeling as old as eternity to remind him of the ancient forces he had dared to toy with. He didn't know how he had left the hold, or sealed it behind him, or when the tablet had first reappeared next to him and why it continued to do so despite every terror-stricken effort to rid himself of it.
However, Brokk held onto one piece of certainty. The tablet had obeyed the command it was given. And cursed as he was, Brokk felt compelled to find out why. It would probably take the rest of his life to translate its text without trying to cheat again. Somehow, he didn`t think he would be allowed to die-- although suffer, that he certainly would, and greatly-- before this penance was complete.
"What does it matter?' he had once been asked.
Brokk thought that had been a rhetorical question and used it as such. He would ask it of the Zelish half-elf when being queried on why he wanted to join some expedition to Mavarra. He would ask it of the hositan thief that the paladin strong-armed into helping them, when she had asked about his past. He would even ask it of the strange druid they met in the Ruin Wood, but had been startled by another question.
"What if it matters not at all?"
And once more, Brokk had no answer.
Aidan squatted before the cave entrance, peering into the gloom. It was small, easy to overlook, but obvious if you knew to look for the signs. There was that faint smell of decay, deeper than that of a wolf`s or bear`s den. There was the absence of animal tracks and the lack of birdsong in the area. Most tellingly, there was not even any fungal or lichen growth on the walls of the cave, only brown tufts left to rot where they had withered.
There was a sickness here. Many of them, in fact, welling up from some foul source deep below the earth. Over the night, a few more of the druid`s memories had returned. He and Brokk had spent the early morning deep in conversation, most of which was couched in terminology utterly incomprehensible to Aidan, but had seemed to allay some of the dwarf`s initial tensions.
The paladin fought down his rising fear, which were for his companions, not himself. His unwavering service to the gods had rewarded him with divine protection against illness. Embla likely had a constitution strong enough to shrug off all but the most virulent of poxes. Isolde and Brokk, however, lacked such protections, and Cawlis had made no effort to claim anything that afflicted any of them would be curable.
He had claimed that he had been to this cave before and knew of a hidden pathway he could use to flank a thing the nature of which he had purported to be ignorant of, but which he recalled existed as a threat. Brokk had vouched for the tenuous accuracy of this memory, citing the results of a divination performed earlier. Seeing as how the art magic was beyond Aidan`s ken, he trusted his ally`s word for it.
Briefly, Aidan looked back at his companions. Embla and Isolde were preparing torches, whilst Brokk was back in talks with Cawlis, apparently discussing some kind of cooperative magical stratagem. The two seemed to have bonded over their shared, if different, understanding of the immense forces lying outside the world. Brokk had even taken the druid`s side without hesitation when the matter of the Circle of Twelve Moons had come up.
I wouldn`t worry about them, the druid had said. They chose to stay trespassed in these woods. It will come back to bite them.
His laughter had sent a chill down Aidan`s spine. There was a malevolent glee in it so far removed from the usual matter-of-fact tone that suggested a cruel fate had been plotted for the warlocks, perhaps even already enacted in some subtle way.
Whatever it was, it was a problem for another day. For now, Aidan had the unenviable duty to lead his friends-- and one very disturbing ally-- into the under-realms of the world.
Silent, invisible, shaking in terror, Imp crouched among the branches. Not since leaving its native hells had the tiny fiend been witness to such monstrosities. Even now, the sounds of desperate battle reached its ears. The coven masters were no doubt making their final, futile stand.
Imp peered through its claws, heart fluttering excitedly at the carnage, then pounding harder as it recalled the cause. It knew well enough that, if it was so foolish as to reveal itself, it would be next. Not that being cast out of this world was so terrible, but the punishments its master would inflict for failing to suborn the coven most certainly were. The problem was that only Imp`s own mortal had been lured to change patronage from fey lord to archdevil, making the last four years of "service" effectively a waste of time.
A brief silence fell, then was replaced by the slow, deliberate rending of flesh and cracking of bone. Imp continued to hide, knowing what would come. There was a pained moan from one unlucky aspirant trying to regain consciousness. Unable to look away, Imp stared at the ghastly head that snaked back into view, examining the dying warlock with cold hunger. Then, with deceptive gentleness, it picked up its meal and withdrew.
Imp still did not move. Night fell and dawn came before the little fiend at last moved from its hiding place. Making a slow, wide circle around the slaughter, it finally reached the collapsed tent it sought. Brought low by a wayward strike from the tail of one of the beasts, the tent had obscured its occupant and no doubt protected him from death. That the man had not bled out or been discovered since was its own stroke of luck-- it meant Imp still had a chance to acquire a warlock coven for its master, albeit delayed by needing to have an entirely new one established first.
As Imp alerted him to their relative safety, Naxartes stirred from his own hiding place at last, body afire with pain and mind seething with uttermost loathing. He understood what had happened. The weakness of the coven masters had led them to view him as a threat. They had called upon the druid to fabricate an excuse to get rid of him, no doubt by calling upon the paladin and the others, who had already become known for their deeds in Mavarra.
It was clear, however, that their tools for his downfall had been too cunning. Undoubtedly, they had seen that they were being used and had grown resentful. That the druid had drawn those abominations to the coven was an obvious truth, to let them plead innocence if ever questioned. Naxartes could not help but admire the duplicity of these foes, able to deceive even one of so agile a mind as he as to their simple nature.
But their scheme had failed: he, the great Naxartes, yet lived! His so-called peers were dead, slain by their own tools. A fitting reward for their treachery. Vengeance was needed, of course, against those five who had so grievously wounded him. There was time for that, however. Time enough for anyone.
Naxartes swore it.
"There was a trap here, once," Isolde confirmed, running her fingers over tiny holes in the wall. "Probably a poison one, maybe smeared onto a dart. It was a very long time ago though. The mechanism is completely defunct."
She stamped down hard on the rock-switch that had originally been intended as a trigger. When nothing happened, she held up a finger in warning.
"Which ain`t me saying there is no danger. See that? Someone set it up so as to catch out anyone who thought the poison trap was all there was."
At first, the others could not spot what she had pointed at, but when Isolde brought one of the torches closer, the gossamer tripwire just beyond the switch glittered in the light. The hositan nodded in admiration, examining this obstacle.
"Ettercap silk," she pronounced at last. "Extremely difficult to refine to this standard. I know of, at best, three creatures with the skill to do that. Not that you`ll find two of them anywhere near this close to the surface if they can help it. Anyway, let`s skip the lecture and think on this...."
Isolde set the torch down next to her, then, with infinite care, plucked at the tripwire. The silence was absolute. Frowning, she drew her dagger and started tapping the walls with its pommel, listening intently. An echo returned once or twice, but only from gaps wherein the poison trap had been placed. After a minute of this, the hositan abandoned this search.
She looked back at the tripwire, considering the options. It had been some time since a challenge of this subtlety had been presented to her. In fact, hadn`t the last time she`d seen ettercap silk been at the estate of the Silver Duke? Yes, and it had nearly managed to rid her of that insufferable wretch she`s been partnered with for that evening too, before they`d been strung up in the dungeons. Such pleasant memories aside, there was an important thing to take away from that experience.
Isolde retrieved her torch and turned her attention to the tunnel roof, suspicions quickly proven correct. "Could you all take, um, maybe? One, two...three. Yes, three steps back if you please."
When the others had done so, she hopped over the tripwire and sliced through it. Immediately, a section of the roof slid to one side. Several viciously barbed spears shot out of the gap, passing exactly through where Aidan and Brokk had been standing. A few feet further ahead of Isolde, similarly cruel weapons had emerged from the walls. The design meant that anyone who triggered the trap would almost certainly be impaled unless they stayed their impulse to run. After a few seconds, they withdrew back into the rock.
"On the positive side, it`s really unlikely whoever set that trap is still alive," Isolde said cheerily. "Unless it was some kind of undead horror, of course. Let`s hope it wasn't, though! Come on, let's keep going."
They had been walking through tunnels and caves for nearly an hour, Isolde dutifully pointing out various old and mostly inoperative traps, and skillfully disarmed those that still worked, when they emerged into the watch-room. Brokk and Embla, their stomachs the strongest, moved to examine the leaking corpses from the closest distance they dared. The dwarf immediately spat a curse and Aidan resisted the urge to cut off his prayer for the souls of the dead. He was a servant of the Lord of Mercy after all and though they might not deserve it, it was not his place to judge, even when it came to the vile drow.
At least this went a way towards confirming who had set the trap with ettercap silk. Dark elves were infamous for their expertise with resources that the surface peoples would not even consider usable. A quick survey of the smaller caverns beyond proved that they had established a small outpost here, but had fallen victim to the earliest and most lethal diseases from below. This was notable, for elves were known to be resistant to most diseases.
Then, in one room, the scene shifted to one of far greater horror. The bodies had been dragged into a corner and heaped together, forming a grotesque pyramid. The pile shook rhythmically to a wet, thick sound that was unmistakably chewing. Isolde let out a cry of disgust at the sight and the sound stopped. A deep growl replaced it, and the rotting bodies now shook with the anger of whatever was feeding on them.
Aidan and Embla had immediately reached for their weapons, but Cawlis leaped in front of them and barred the way. A stream of gargled syllables, sounding almost apologetic, emerged from his mouth. A muffled response in kind came from beneath the corpse-pyramid, and the sounds of chewing resumed, albeit more warily.
Cawlis began to back out of the room. "No need to fight. We are many and strong and there is much food here. We have a greater danger ahead."
Embla bent down, looking the druid in the eyes. "Speak truth. If there was no greater danger, would you stop us still?"
"You are not the prey," Cawlis replied at once. "Nor are you the predator. So it is by choice that you fight, not by need. Have you a right to kill for no gain, not even that of safety?"
Embla smiled slowly and straightened up, apparently satisfied. Aidan felt as though he had missed something in that exchange, especially since it didn't actually seem to be an answer, but he wasn't going to start a fight that he didn't need to. He made a mental note to ask Embla about it later, as even with her relatively limited vocabulary she came across as more comprehensible than the druid.
At the rear of the party, Brokk was running over the plan in his head, looking for flaws to correct. He had identified several already, but the greatest of them was the absence of any solid information from Cawlis on what exactly was down here. It meant that he was walking blindly into a dangerous situation. It meant that he couldn't prepare in advance for what they would be facing.
Brokk did not deceive himself. They had survived deadly encounters before with less preparation than they had now, but there was only so much luck that one could rely on. The dwarf felt as though most of his own luck, and all that of his peers, had been used up during the Final Recitation.
As it always did, thinking of that time took him back to it as though it was not yet in the past. In his mind's eye, he was there, completely and utterly. Every detail was irrevocably etched into his memory. Granite dust beneath his nails, itching now. The taste of sweat in the air, the exacting syllables scraping across the soul. The hairs on his head bristled, his beard actually crackling with static as the power grew, flowing through the assembly. Was that a light that he could see forming upon the runes? And then....
The breath tore loose from his lungs, his hands clapped to his ears as Brokk found himself back in the present, the terrible end of the ritual blocked from waking thought. With a supreme effort of will, he pulled his hands back down and checked that the tablet was still in his pocket; knowing it was still there, relief flooding through him nevertheless as he felt its weight.
He noticed the others looking around at him in concern, but forced a smile. It wouldn't fool them for a moment, but they knew he would be ready for anything when the time came. They knew he would be ready-- a darker joke than any other the dwarf had ever heard. The formal training he was receiving had been cut short along with the life of his clan, forcing Brokk to learn in the most dangerous of fashions: through unaided practical experience. He had never heard of such a thing outside of the most implausible of children's stories.
Brokk noticed that Cawlis had slowed his pace somewhat, falling back until they were walking side by side. The question hung unasked between them, but Brokk knew the answer would not come in any case. Even Aidan did not know the full truth and, gods willing, he would be spared that grief. It seemed as though the druid sensed that Brokk would not be forthcoming.
"Ask me something, then," he prompted Brokk.
Brokk thought for a moment. "Whilst I admit my grasp of pseudo-bestial languages is somewhat tenuous, there were a number of characteristics evident for me to form a hypothesis in conjunction with the other available facts. Namely, you defended, and more importantly conversed with, an otyugh. I would like an explanation. Specifically, I would like you to explain precisely what you did to the Circle of Twelve Moons."
"That is very clever. You already know the answer, of course?"
Brokk nodded. "I wish to hear you say it. Then I must decide exactly what to tell my friends. I find it very doubtful that Embla will be swayed by your argument again, for example. Now then, the answer of which I am already aware is that you made the coven into the prey of one or more...."
Cawlis laughed softly, maliciously. "Gulogut."
At Brokk`s suggestion, Aidan and Isolde stood a few feet apart from the group, with Embla hidden slightly further into the tunnel, to emerge at speed only when battle had been joined and the shock of her appearance was most effective. The strange druid had vanished into a side passage some minutes earlier, loping away silently into the blackness to set his ambush. Brokk had cast some spells on him earlier and had neither volunteered nor been asked for details. Explanations were very rarely needed and even more rarely understood.
"Remember, it`ll say things that are true, so it`s vitally important you ignore it," Cawlis had said before leaving. Aidan had felt a shiver run down his spine at that, though he couldn't explain why. Not that it mattered now. They were just a few bends away from the final cavern and the last preparations needed to be made quickly.
Aidan checked over his warhammer one last time, testing its weight, its feel in his hands. He had butterflies in his stomach, as before every fight. He recalled being told that the noblest servants of the gods were fearless, untouched by terror or doubt. It had been a bitter discovery to learn from other champions that this was only a half-truth. Even the mightiest paladin felt fear but was compelled to stand his ground regardless, as though held there by some outside force.
For one whose life, and in many cases, soul, depended on self-mastery, this was its own terror to Aidan. He had spoken of it to Embla once and been told such a lack of self-control meant only it was amply present. At the time, he had thought she didn`t understand, but looking at her now, he thought she had. He had pledged himself to Heshtail, continued on this path despite great adversity and danger, and it was all done of his own free will. Aidan saw now that he had always been in control of his actions, and by not abandoning his oaths, he would remain in control even if his heart was gripped with fear. In its own grim way, it was a reassuring thought.
At his side, Isolde was whetting her daggers, a hideous grimace twisting her features, desperately trying to keep herself calm. This was no petty bar brawl, or even goblinoid ambush, where she was in little danger of harm. She loved life far too much to throw it away, as her companions seemed willing to do. She was a thief, by Bunga, not some foolhardy hero. And yet, here she was, about to face some unknown horror in a smelly, poxy cave. Just because her luck had run out after escaping Kelerak and she needed a quick way to make a few coins, and just because she had a lapse of judgement in that godless catacomb and gone back to save the idiot paladin....
She looked over at Aidan, trying to draw strength from his stoic resolve, and failing. She looked behind her to Brokk, then immediately away again, clearly seeing the strain on his face. She looked further back to where Embla waited patiently and began to feel a bit better. The woman was grinning like a demon, tongue lapping at her lips eagerly. Isolde had seen her, when in full battle-rage, tear a man`s arm clean off and briefly use it as a club until she had retrieved her weapon. And what a weapon it was, Isolde knew, a sword almost too heavy for the hositan even to lift. Her presence and ferocity was heartening. Isolde noticed a little smile forming on her lips and quickly wiped it away, returning to her daggers.
Best be prepared.
Brokk counted off the minutes in his head, giving Cawlis as much time as they had deemed necessary to get into position. Then he gave the signal and followed Aidan and Isolde as they moved around the last bend. As he turned the corner, he gathered his energies and spoke a short incantation, gesturing in the general direction of the ceiling. A sphere of light burst into existence, illuminating the contents of the cavern and, more importantly, the monstrosity waiting in the pit at its heart. All three adventurers immediately bit back cries of disgust.
Nearly a dozen bloated, suppurating eyes writhed on stalks to look at the trio, the bulbous mass to which they were attached heaving itself about in indescribable filth. Corpses of all kinds lay about it in various states of decay, channels carved into the floor directing the liquid putrefaction into the pit. Brokk felt sucker-tipped fingers prying at his thoughts, trying to turn the pages of his mind as he might a particularly interesting spellbook, but thrust them away with an effort of will.
"And yet another dull, uninspired collection stands before me."
Brokk fought back the urge to retch at the deep, bubbling voice of the horror. The sound of it seemed to be a physical thing, with its own scent and taste. Even more than by the invasion of his mental privacy, the dwarf felt violated by it. More and more, he was beginning to fill in the last pieces of this puzzle. Forcing himself to inspect the horror closely, he spotted the scarred, weeping hole that confirmed one of his major suspicions. Once, this had been one of the beholderkin and a mage of enough power to sacrifice its primary eye for greater arcane mastery.
"So what did that pitiable Cawlis manage to tell you? That here lies some ancient evil? That all the plagues of the world might be found here? That you must stop it before it is too late for the sunlit realms? All truths, but not all the truth."
A faint movement on the other side of the cavern caught Brokk`s eye, and he fixed his gaze away from it. Cawlis had found his way through to the secret entrance after all. Now it just remained to finish this monster. Somehow, Brokk suspected it would be far less simple than that.
"Paladin, willing slave to the Merciful One. I see the doubt in your heart. I echo it in confusion-- how can you hope to free your land of darkness if you are so shackled by the light? We saw it before, Cawlis and I, did you know that? Long ago. We learned that light shines brightest just before it is extinguished."
Brokk saw Aidan straighten his back, his knuckles whiten. He took a step forward, raising the warhammer in readiness to strike and kill, or block and counter as needed. Isolde was sidling in the opposite direction, as though to flank, although it was clear a creature with this many eyes would not be so easily caught out. She staggered, but did not slow, as it turned its attention to her.
"Little lost one, adrift on waves of ill chance. You know you cannot go back. Do your friends give you comfort? I can only imagine the shame your family feels. Yet worse is that hope, that impossible hope, that you and not what you have become, return home."
Isolde`s hand blurred and an eye fell into the slurry below, the flung knife embedded in the vile flesh at the stalk`s base. For all the feats he had seen her perform before, Brokk was impressed. The throw needed to have been reflexive, literally without pause for thought, in order to avoid detection. The mutated beholder let out a shriek, but Brokk could tell it was more of surprise and outrage than actual pain. At least this showed it hadn`t, perhaps even couldn`t, shield itself with the more advanced protective magics that Brokk had feared. Its transformation had at least robbed it of some of its magical prowess.
He sensed, rather than saw, Cawlis reaching a striking position overhead. The dwarf waited a heartbeat longer before acting, reaching into himself for the strongest spell he knew. The smell of sulphur briefly overpowered the stench of decay, and a wave of fire burst from his hands, sweeping over the mutant. As the flames died, another blurred knife from Isolde claimed a second eye stalk and elicited another angry cry.
Brokk felt that, if nothing else, it proved an excellent distraction. From above, Cawlis dropped down and the dwarf caught sight of some very un-leopard-like additions that had let the druid crawl across the ceiling. Then the beholder mage shifted slightly, revealing a single eye stalk that had been pointed straight up. There was a faint, baleful glow about it as a thin shaft of magical energy shot up into Cawlis` face. The druid hadn`t time enough to cry out as the necrotic spell ate away his fur, flesh, and muscle with equal eagerness, before he impacted atop the monster with a horrid crunch.
"You always try to enter that way, Cawlis old friend," the beholder mage said, almost conversationally, as it spasmed hard and sent the limp, dissolving body flying away. "But you never seem to remember that I am aware of that route. Though the rest of you will have the decency to stay dead."
Embla waited patiently, eyes closed now to sharpen her hearing. The perfect moment was coming, but it wasn`t yet there. No hunter worth the name would spring the trap this early. So she waited and she listened and she waited and she listened. Her breaths and heart slowed, keeping time from moving too swiftly. Her thoughts fragmented, leaving her aware only of the most important details.
A very unpleasant voice was speaking to the others. She ignored it. It didn`t matter. A rumble of pain, hidden behind anger, sounded out. No warcry. Isolde goading the prey. Brokk was saying spellwords. Whiff of brimstone in the air. He is using fire then. Some more pain, but no elven warcry. Isolde again. The unpleasant voice and nothing else. The moment had come.
She opened her eyes and charged into the cavern. To her left, Aidan was moving in at full pace also. His hammer rose and fell, its head disappearing into the soft flesh of the prey. To her right, Isolde let fly with a knife and drew two more. The blades began to dance, spraying a thick sludge that served as the prey`s blood. She made a small leap, clearing Brokk easily, skin tingling as a spell washed over her. The horrid voice said one last thing.
"Mother and Grlarshh! Cawlis never brought giants before!"
Embla felt a pressure on her thoughts but ignored it. Her blood was up and if it was anything, it was just the smell. The prey was there, the prey was surprised, the prey was vulnerable. Embla bunched her muscles and leaped. She could see a deep wound already, a blackened pool of pus. Perfect target. The great sword, gripped tightly in both hands, was brought down with all the might she could muster. It disappeared up to the hilt as she collided with the beast. She held on, digging her heels into its flesh to throw her whole weight onto the blade.
Nothing was unclear about the squeals it now made: pain and shock and mortal terror. It had small eyes on little stalks that it was waving about. Shafts of light flashed out from them every few seconds. Most went wild, or Isolde dodged them easily, or Aidan ignored their touch. There was a golden nimbus of light around her too, which part of her recalled was a defensive spell of Brokk`s.
Embla twisted her sword, gouging the monster horribly. Its thick blood washed over her, bubbling furiously. Brokk's shielding spell shone all the brighter where the blood ran, fighting to protect against its foulness. Shocks were running through the monster now, in time to Aidan`s almighty hammer-blows. Embla held on grimly, carving through the meat with slow, brute force. Filth churned below her as the struggles intensified.
The prey shuddered. It screamed again. Isolde shouted something that was probably extremely rude. The prey stilled. Aidan hit it again for good measure, then again after that. He was still hitting it when Embla pulled herself and her sword free. Tears were flowing freely down his face. Embla let him be and walked over to Brokk. She was suddenly very tired.
"It is dead?" she asked and Brokk nodded. "Good. I`m going to sit down."
She did so, hard. Breathing heavily, heart racing, she closed her eyes to rest. Shortly afterwards, she began to snore.
Aidan lay back against the wall, his muscles screaming exhaustion at him. He didn`t know how long he had spent avenging himself on that abomination for invading his thoughts and parading them in the open so freely. From the carefully blank look on Brokk`s face, it had been some time. Isolde stood next to him, holding him tightly and resting her chin on his head, a silent comfort to the both of them. He could feel her tears and knew she had suffered as he had.
A few feet away, Embla lay in her usual stupor, recovering from her battle-rage. He had seen this before and wasn`t worried, not least because Brokk assured him that his spells had held and she had been protected from direct exposure to the monster. He had also carefully congratulated Aidan on resisting the various magical effects he had been subjected to, though warning they probably accounted for at least part of how weary he felt at the moment.
The paladin had almost felt like laughing, the absurd self-evidence of the statement doing much to raise his spirits. He felt even better when Brokk took one of the lanterns, doused the horrid corpse in oil, and set a magical flame in its flesh, that would burn until there was nothing left. Then Brokk did a strange thing. As Aidan watched, he moved slightly further off, almost out of sight behind the body, speaking softly to himself. It looked to Aidan as though he cast one more spell, then just stared into the distance for some seconds.
"Should I ask what that was?" Aidan tried to smile at Brokk when he came back, but it didn't feel like it came out right. The dwarf looked at him, deep in thought, then started to shrug. A huge, genuine smile spread across his face and he clapped Aidan on the shoulder.
"The answer to my own riddle, my friend!" Brokk laughed, looking as though an immense weight had just been lifted from his shoulders. "It might matter the world. It might matter not at all. Only one way to find out and that is to ask! Whatever the answer, you have to ask first! Then you can know if it matters."
Isolde looked at him, eyes wide and pleading. "By Khuldul, dwarf, can you not give us that right now? Either tell us or shut up. Please. Just, please."
Brokk nodded, his smile faltering a little and his eyes gaining a distant look to them. It was clear that this was one of those rare occasions where an explanation was actually required. More so even than that, it was an explanation that needed to be understood as well. They waited patiently for him to assemble his thoughts.
At last, he spoke: "There was a very old curse in place here. Those who work magic are warned early about certain researches. Such researches can change a person. Twist them into a half-thing that knows only that it wants to know, but not what it wants to know. A victim of this change is called a nothic. Until now, I had never thought of the possibility that it could befall certain monstrous creatures. But in this case, that is exactly what must have happened. A very, very long time ago."
"This particular nothic was once a beholder mage. I can only assume its transformation drew the attention of ancient druids who sought to destroy it. For whatever reason, they must have failed and sought then to prevent it from ever rising again. So they worked a mighty spell of changing on one of their own to stand watch until the nothic could be slain. This guardian was Cawlis, who would attempt to recruit others with the strength to succeed where they had failed. But all he did so prior to now were slain."
"And most important of all, Cawlis too died each time, only to be raised again along with the nothic. That was the last spell I cast. A simple divination, to confirm or deny one last suspicion. You see, for it to have lasted this long, the spell that was wrought on Cawlis needed to be especially enduring. And we all saw the nothic kill Cawlis, did we not? Then we killed the nothic in turn."
He paused to let them absorb this. He saw the same suspicion in their eyes that he had had. "As best I can determine, our peculiar ally will reincarnate sometime in the next few months. After that, mortality will call as it does to us all. With the nothic dead, that ancient spell will have evaporated at long last. At least it explains our first meeting. Over all those years, to have lived as so many creatures, so many people, as fully and truly as we live our own single life... small wonder Cawlis seemed mad."
There was silence for some time. At last, Embla began to stir and Aidan stood up. They had suffered through another terrible experience but come out alive on the other side. Ultimately, that was what mattered to him. Besides, they still had to stumble back out of this accursed cave to the real world of sun and grass and the spring mists of Daven. Best to get on with that and worry about all the rest once they were in more comfortable surroundings. He would need to think of a way to distract Isolde from the lack of payment. Perhaps they could head to Elder Daven. It wasn`t much, but Aidan thought it would do.
It would do just fine.