The Mists of Daven
By R. Krommydas
The dwarf muttered a foul curse under his breath as the vessel heaved again, spilling ink all over the parchment. Realizing the futility, he abandoned his efforts and packed away his belongings to wait for a better time. Next to him, looking distinctly queasy, sat Karl von Lanburg, son of the Driddaren marshal who had arranged this journey for them. On land, the younger von Lanburg had something of his father's hard stare and self-possession. On water, however, he had paled quickly and was still searching for his sea-legs.
In this, Brokk thought with some amusement, the boy was doomed to failure, for they were not even on the ocean, open or not, merely traveling up the Great Daven Lake to the old town of Arden. Brokk was more surprised at Embla, laid completely low by seasickness within the first day of setting sail. It was a curious condition for one so otherwise hardy to be vulnerable, he thought, although it had at least let him ask one of his oldest questions - how had she coped on her original journey, for had she not crossed over from Eruna on a Budum-Ishian merchantman or a barque of Selfhaven?
"Of course not!" Embla had replied. "I left to find truth, not to miss the three occupied realms."
Brokk had wondered at this, as ever finding more questions in the answer, for if Embla had not sailed the Gulf of Gor or the Lonely Sea, then she must have walked to Zeland, where she met with Aidan and saved his life. That would mean she had to cross more than just the Deadlands but also have taken the Pass of Doom from the Wintervale itself even to reach them. He shook his head, a little disbelievingly. He could barely reconcile everything he knew of her with the idea that she had somehow managed to either avoid detection all the way through that accursed land or kept from trying to slaughter its every inhabitant.
His musings were interrupted by another surging wave threatening to capsize the ship. Unconsciously, he shifted his weight to match the rolling of the boards beneath his feet, barely moving from where he stood though the unfortunate Karl was nearly hurled across the cabin. It was a rare dwarf who had sea-legs, but Brokk had lived long enough to appreciate the value of skills most never knew existed. True, his thoughts had been thrown off-balance, but by the fact of the storm, not its actions on the normally-placed lake.
"There is something decidedly unnatural about this," he concluded unhappily. "Karl, I'm going to check on the others. Try not to die in the meantime."
A nauseous moan of self-pity was the youth's only response to this.
Meanwhile, on the deck, Aidan fought to master the mizzen sail, the winds threatening to unfurl it once more. At last, he got it under control and breathed a sigh of relief as the ship's frightened bucking began to settle, and he patted its hull affectionately, a superstition he had picked up quickly from the sailors. Some had already fled down below, no doubt fearing the captain's wrath less than that of the elements.
Even as their efforts seemed to pay off, the storm intensified and Aidan's good humor waned with the deepening darkness. The spraying waves slashed Aidan's eyes like knives. The paladin squinted into the storm, bracing his legs against the heaving deck.
"We'll be lucky to weather this storm in one piece," he bellowed to the hard-eyed halfling maiden who now clung to the rail nearby, more for his benefit than hers, unsure if she could even hear him over the growing roar of the waves. "Still, with the grace of Reeanan on our side, we should...make...port..."
His words trailed off as he caught sight of the unusual movement. He watched, horror-struck, as a bloated pair of sickly hands rose from the churning waters, impossibly gripping the smooth hull and heaving their owner upwards. It was a pallid thing, waterlogged and with a green luminescence grinning out from lifeless eyes. Aidan fell back instinctively as the gruesome horror crawled onto the deck, brackish water spilling from its mouth. An eel slithered behind its teeth, snapping angrily at the air, then wriggled loose and fell back into the water.
"Abatadh," screamed the paladin in his native speech, rising terror momentarily causing him to forget any other. "Drowned Dead! The storm is the least of our problems now!"
Brokk stepped out onto the deck and instinctively hurled a fireball ahead of him, succeeding only in annoying the waterlogged horror scurrying towards Aidan. Steam erupted from the walking corpse, swaddling it in an obscuring cloak that lingered despite the howling winds. A grinning skull, draped with rotted weeds, turned to him and clacked its jaws together in a parody of speech. The wizard swore back at it, knowing he had wasted the element of surprise. Fire was not a useful element in these conditions, magical or otherwise.
The undead lifted a hand towards the dwarf, bubbles rising along the arm as it did so, dark oiliness dripping steadily. A thick stream flowed from the dead flesh, coiling through the air with terrible purpose. Though it seemed to Brokk to take forever to reach him, in fact, it was less than a second before the murky missile struck him in the face.
His lungs immediately contracted, resisting the invasion by the corrupted water trying to push its way into them. A part of his mind, ever analytic, reminded him that the ranged lethality of this particular type of undead was not nearly so great as its physical touch, which could very easily start drowning him immediately. This was just a natural side-effect of getting violently splashed in the face with a necrotic death-fluid. As calming thoughts go, this was not one of his best.
He fought to clear his eyes. An elvish warcry, in a notably hysterical tone, sounded amid the turmoil of the storm. Brokk knew that Aidan had gotten over his shock, but he had seen enough before his momentary blindness to know that the paladin did not have his hammer with him. Unarmed combat was not Aidan’s specialty, but Embla’s, and she was very much out of action.
Brokk blinked the last water clear and focused on the scene. He saw Aidan trying to grapple with the watery undead, though neither seemed to have any idea as to what the rules of that were. Several Davenian sailors were trying to cower from the fight and keep the ship from sinking at the time. Several others had apparently vacated the deck entirely to find the captain or first mate or bosun or someone else in authority, for all the good that would do. Isolde had disappeared from all view, which Brokk found reassuring.
He recalled Aidan commenting, "There are banshees that shriek less than that one would if she fell into the water," after a particularly stressful river fording on their way back from the Ruin Woods. No, wherever Isolde was, she was certainly not overboard. More likely halfway up a mast or something, dagger between the teeth like some fantastical pirate queen of a children’s tale, readying herself to blindside the Drowned Dead.
Brokk, however, now had a different task to ready himself for and scant seconds in which to do it. Drawing upon years of practice, he forced his mind to settle. Irrelevancies were shunted away from conscious thought. His awareness narrowed, fixing upon the desperate struggle before him. Black water poured from Aidan’s mouth, half-coughed, half-vomited up from his lungs. For all that he was stronger than his undead enemy, the half-elf was clearly about to overwhelmed by its foul magic, intent on making him suffer the same grim fate.
That was the most important thing to resolve. The necessary spell was not one of those he had prepared earlier, but Brokk had learned a trick to overcome that obstacle. It meant sacrificing more of his arcane energy to convert, for lack of a better term, into the spell he wanted, but it would be worth it. He closed his eyes, concentrating, twisting the magic at his command into a form more suited to his needs. He could feel it protesting, spitefully retaliating by draining him of different spells, but ultimately bending to his will.
Aidan had seen the drowned before, not in this horrid undead form, but as ordinary corpses. He had always thought it an especially horrific death, not least because it was such a commonplace risk, relative to the legendary tortures faced by heroes and villains alike in bardic tales. Anyone might suffer that fate, dragged below the surface by their own treacherous body, failing to heed their commands and just swim back up to take a lifesaving breath of air.
There was a look of terrified denial in the faces of the drowned he had seen. At the last moment, even the pain and disorientation had given way, it seemed, to a sudden understanding that this was truly the end of a life far too short and far too unfair. The mind refused to accept this even as the body died. Its final act was to stamp this emotion onto the frozen face of its owner, forever marking it for all to see.
Now he was feeling this for himself and it was exactly as horrific as he had ever imagined. Spasms wracked him as his lungs battled against the water filling them. He could barely think in any direction, let alone straight, as unreasoning panic ripped his thoughts to tatters. It was an agony unlike any other, though his career had done something to harden him against pain. He was completely silent because his throat had completely locked up, which a Zelish healer had once informed him was enough to kill a drowning person through suffocation before any water could even reach their lungs.
Somehow, he kept his grip on the Drowned Dead, the continuing source of all this pain and misery. As it struggled against him, striking his arms and chest, the heartless waters that drowned it were called to do the same to him. Most would have succumbed already, or broken free to try escaping, but Aidan was made of sterner stuff. His training as a paladin had made him tenacious, though here it seemed likely to make a martyr of him.
Then relief! Sweet, blessed air. But his lungs still felt heavy, churning with water that did not belong - and also did not hurt any longer. His body stopped fighting, accepting this unusual presence. Aidan felt the fog of pain clouding his mind lift, and he wondered at the sudden clarity. As far as he could tell, he was still, technically, drowning. Was this his own last moment of life, a merciful release from the agony of his death, a gift from Heshtail for his service?
"Did my best, Aidan, now do yours and kill it again!"
He heard Brokk shouting at him and understood, if not the details, then the fact. His ally had used the magic in him to keep Aidan from drowning and able to fight. Now it would be up to Aidan to call upon the powers vested in him to finish the job. In a sense, he feared to do that even more than the drowning. The latter was an event which, in most cases, could only happen to a person once.
There was little other recourse, however, so Aidan took a breath - still marveling at his newfound ability to do so with lungs filling with water - and reached into himself. The cleansing light of Heshtail, glimmering in his soul, reached up to him also, far more eagerly.
Overhead, as Brokk had deduced, Isolde clutched at the rigging, dagger between her teeth. Almost as soon as the Drowned Dead had crawled onto the deck, she had abandoned her position and begun to climb, seeking the only possible high ground aboard a ship. This was less to do with any tactical advantage to be gained and more to do with just getting as far away as possible as quickly as possible.
Then she looked back down and saw the undead throw a watery glob at Brokk, clearly expressing how little it thought of his attempt to incinerate something almost wetter than a fish. The effectiveness of that glob told Isolde that the high ground, such as it was, would serve her poorly here.
Instead, she began to move closer to the impromptu wrestling match Aidan was holding - he seemed to be losing quite decisively too - and observed the Drowned Dead carefully. There was a vulnerability shared by almost everything that had narrowed his attention too much. Isolde was one of those who had been taught how to exploit that vulnerability, which was being thoughtfully provided by Aidan distracting it.
There would be very little time, a matter of seconds at most before the golden opportunity was lost after she joined the fight. She had no intention of staying in the fight after that either. Drowned Dead were exceptionally dangerous even if you had somehow known you were facing one and had prepared for it. All it would take was a single lucky hit and she would be the one coughing and choking, not Aidan.
Isolde shimmied down a rope slowly, approaching the melee. The storm helped a little, in that it ensured there was too much motion and sound all around for her own to be noticeable. She did not appreciate being batted around by the wind like a yarn ball in the paws of angry kittens, but it was self-evidently less horrible than what Aidan was going through. Even now, she allowed herself a mental tut-tutting at his antics. What heroism to engage something so dangerous in hand-to-hand combat, saving the lives of the common sailors by risking oneself in their stead! What nobility to offer up such a sacrifice to the will of chance, when fate deals you such a blow! What utter stupidity.
Paladins. Small wonder, she thought, they were so rare.
"Stay just where you are, you sodden bastard," she murmured, lowering herself still further. "And keep the Drowned Dead there too."
In the shared quarters below, Karl von Lanburg continued to moan unhappily, alternately and futilely clutching at whichever part of him most distressed him at any given moment. He knew that this was one of the only chances he would ever get to prove himself to his father, the great Marshal von Lanburg, Godric’s strong left arm - a hidden power, true, but one that would be wielded very effectively if the need came - and his seasickness hurt him less than the fear that he was going to fail in this task. That, if truth be told, Ahe was already failing by being bed-bound on a mere lake crossing.
He was only kept from slipping into total despair by the knowledge that he was not alone in this suffering. Better still, it was one of the four he had been assigned to escort to Arden that was just as afflicted as himself, and the strongest-looking of them too, the bizarre warrior woman of Eruna. Davenian women were nothing like that and he wasn’t entirely sure he approved, but he was not so foolish as to say so, any more than he would insult an ogre or troll to its face. He rather suspected, in fact, that he would not suffer nearly so much by insulting one of the dark folk as risking incurring the Erunian’s anger.
As for the others, he had begun to wonder why they needed any kind of escort at all. The elf-blood, a Zelish native to judge by the offensively red hair he sported, was clearly a hardened warrior, and a match for any of the Driddaren. His mighty warhammer looked able to crush the skull of a giant and if that failed, no doubt the halfling would simply hamstring it and watch it fall like a tree in a hurricane. Who knew what powers their wizard possessed!
Karl felt very average when he compared himself to the four. He was, granted, the youngest member of the Driddaren, but even so, had been involved in enough purges of the undead that plagued Elder Daven to have gathered a few scars and plenty of the most valuable combat experience - that of the survivor - to count himself as a respectable fighter. His suspicions were growing that the reason for his presence was of the worst kind, not even ceremonial but political.
Even just thinking the word made him want to spit. Or perhaps that was the rolling of the ship? Probably a combination of both, he thought to himself self-pityingly. Then he realized how pathetic he sounded and his mood blackened almost at once. He finally rolled all the way out of his bunk and snatched up his sword. There was still no feeling of being on solid ground - which, of course, he wasn’t - and his balance was still suffering as badly as his stomach, but it was his pride that was more grievously wounded now, though admittedly self-inflicted.
Grimly, struggling to keep from collapsing with every step, the young soldier stormed out of the crew quarters and headed up towards the deck, feeling worse by the second but refusing to back down. He was a von Lanburg, by Kantor! If he was going to die, it would be on his feet, in battle, not wailing in his bed like an old timer.
At this point, it should be noted, he did not yet know what was actually happening on deck. Later, he would admit that had he been aware of the Drowned Dead threatening the ship, he probably would have stayed below. It was, after all, a far more dangerous form of undead than any he had ever faced with a dozen heavily-armed soldiers at his side back in Elder Daven.
In future, Brokk told himself sternly as he watched Aidan grapple with the undead, always assume some kind of ambush will occur. Especially if it had been a few days since the last battle and there was no reason to suspect another one would decide to drag them into it. He had left himself with practically no combat-suitable spells over the last couple of days, instead preferring magic that would help to focus his mind on the conundrum of the ancient tablet he carried with him. Confirmation, not for the first time, that his obsession would probably end up getting him killed one day, or at least horribly injured.
He had so few options available to him. Even the achievement of altering his spells was one too mentally tiring to perform more than once every few minutes, and then only if he actually sat himself down to recover and refocus himself. Preparing a spell, as he had often lectured, was not the equivalent of picking an interesting selection from a list, but of inscribing a short essay onto the slate of the mind, and required one to wipe much of the slate clean in order to edit that essay.
Still, as he watched Aidan seize the Drowned Dead by the throat, a pale glow in his palm the only manifestation of his reforged connection to the divine, it occurred to him that there was one thing he could still do. Indeed, with his ally taking up so much of the undead’s attention - it looked like his hand was actually burning a hole into its corrupted flesh - it was relatively safe for Brokk to do so.
He approached the melee, swiftly drawing upon the magic he needed, then gently tapped the Drowned Dead on the shoulder. There was an explosion of light and the horror let out a gargled shriek, for the first time showing pain, as the radiance spread over it, eating away at it. A rotting fist lashed out at Brokk, but Aidan’s reflexes were the quicker and he batted it aside with his free hand. The other tightened further and steam could now be seen rising up from it.
Brokk fell back, now truly out of options, but reassured about their chances nonetheless. The moment he was clear, a small bolt of fury fell from the rigging, driving a long dagger straight into the illuminated skull of the Drowned Dead. Inertia dragged Isolde and her dagger downwards, carving open the Drowned Dead on her way to the deck. A fetid mixture of congealed blood and septic water did not pour but rather glooped from the gaping wound. Before it had the chance to splash on her, Isolde had already disengaged.
The pair now stood back and watched as the undead fell to its knees, the tripartite assault it had just suffered enough to cripple even the most resilient of its kind. Yet the light in its eyes did not dim but turned instead to the one still holding it in a death grip. Its jaws fell apart and a hateful hiss emerged. Then a shock, as from the mouth of a creature incapable of speech, words tumbled out, in a deep and rumbling tone that was clearly not of mortal origin.
'Your disruptions have not gone unnoticed, paladin. Fool that you are, you test my patience. I will no longer stand for it. This vessel shall be your end.'
The Drowned Dead’s jaws snapped shut again and it rose up, hurling Aidan from it in a sudden burst of force, smashing him into the rail. Tendrils of necrotic energy erupted around it as it lurched towards the fallen paladin, infusing it with mutually-destructive power to ensure his demise. Brokk had never seen such sorcery before, but its hellish signature was clear enough to any adept to recognize as the work of a very powerful devil, transferring some of its power to its undead servant. The apparent randomness of this encounter, and the storm that heralded it, was evidently nothing more than an assassination attempt.
Isolde, stunned by the reversal of fortune, snapped out of her shock just as the Drowned Dead reached Aidan, who was simply stunned, but she was too far away to help as it lifted up a foot, literally preparing to crush him under its heel. The foot was not lowered, however. The undead, if it was still capable of expression, might have looked surprised at the sword that appeared to be growing out of its middle.
Scant seconds later, Isolde slammed into it from behind, knocking it down, embedding two daggers in its eyes at once, then slashing rabidly at it with two others. The necrotic magics surrounding the Drowned Dead lashed at her, trying to drain the life from the brave hositan. Aidan felt a strong pair of arms drag him away from immediate danger, then his savior ran over to help Isolde. Callused, soldier’s hands tore the sword loose of its undead scabbard and buried it again and again and again until the horror stopped moving and the magic around it ebbed away.
His senses returning to him, Aidan sat up carefully and looked over to see who had come to their aid at the critical moment. A very pale, haggard Karl von Lanburg looked back at him. There was a sickly smile on his lips as he commented, "Father would kill me if he heard I threw my sword in combat."
Then he too collapsed against the rail, threw up what little food he still had left in his belly, and fainted clean away.
As ever, when summoned before his superiors, the little imp reflected on the possibilities that awaited him in his endless future. He had already paid his dues over three thousand years of mind-numbing service on pointless guard duty - none escaped the Wailing Tower, no matter how powerful they or their allies had been in their freedom - as a spinagon, a spined devil, in the role of little more than a glorified gargoyle, then been granted the underwhelming honor of walking slowly around the walls holding a glaive as barbazu, a bearded devil.
For the first time, however, he felt as though he had truly taken a step upon the Ascendant Path. His physical form was pitiable by comparison to his earlier bodies, but as an imp, he was now permitted that most crucial and glorious of perks - the right to claim as his own the mortal souls of those he seduced to evil. Gathering enough of them to make a reasonable case for promotion separate to his ongoing servitude would be a slow process, centuries at the least, and it was only proper that his first five or six requests would be denied, requiring him to start over.
But! But it was now a goal he could actively work towards! His promotion into imp meant he was even likely to get a posting on the mortal plane - now, what was its proper name? Make a good impression if he could remember that. Nirian? Nuryan? Something like that, surely - as a familiar to whatever excuse for a magician those mortals could come up with. With any luck, he could even evade the usual halfway step of foot-slogging in that interminable crusade against the demons over in Malor and be promoted to kyton, a chain devil, within a single paltry millennium!
Although, if he did become a chain devil, the imp promised himself he would not end up like his current superior, a depressingly stupid quill-pusher by the name of Buerkaratt. Somehow, that devil had lost all of his ambition and was, horrifically, content exactly where and how he was. The imp sidelined both the unpleasant thoughts and the pleasant daydreams as the door to the office opened, then immediately threw himself to the floor, abasing himself shamelessly before the terror that entered in place of Buerkaratt.
Resembling the imp in shape, but somewhere over ten times larger, the greater devil was one of the malebranche, the horned devils, shock troops of the armies of Hell. Though notoriously lazy in matters unrelated to war, their obedience to explicit orders could never be questioned. This appearance of this one meant that, quite aside from having clearly been given just such an explicit order, there was interest from very high up the hierarchy in the current affairs of this department.
The imp shuddered as the greater devil spoke, not just out of fear, but because the violence of its voice was enough to shake the air itself. It was a voice that had roared defiance to a thousand demonic champions and bellowed triumph over as many eviscerated remains, well used to being heard over the unceasing butchery of the battle waged across ten thousand leagues and as many years.
"BUERKARATT HAS BEEN RELIEVED OF DUTY. FURTHER NEGLIGENCE IN THIS MATTER WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. AN UNACCEPTABLE IRRITANT WILL GROW IF LEFT UNCHECKED. YOU HAVE A SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT ON NÚRION TO CHECK IT. ACQUIRE A WARLOCK COVEN. YOU ARE ITS FIRST FAMILIAR. SIGN."
The imp knew better than to ask for more details - in fact, it was remarkably unusual for so much information to be given to one so lowly - and instead just looked up long enough to see the contract being held out by the massive devil. It almost certainly was not a standard agreement of lease, granting the services of the imp as familiar to a warlock in exchange for their compliance in future matters, but this was no time to quibble over details as was expected.
A touch of his hand was enough and the scrawl of his name appeared in all the correct places. The imp closed his eyes again and clenched his jaws, refusing to cry out at the ghastly pain of being torn from the infernal realm of Barathus, hurled across the planar barriers to Núrion - yes, that was the name! - and bound into the service of a mere mortal. It was only after he had disappeared from Barathus that the horned devil spoke again, in a very subdued and sincere tone utterly unlike its earlier one.
"And may the favor of Asmodeus go with you, Marchosias. You will need it."
All be over in another few decades, Marchosias reminded himself as part of his daily ritual. This lot of troublesome mortals will all be dead or senile, and I can get on with the business of securing a coven free of their interference.
In his preferred crow form still, he cast a beady eye over the two annoyances he was forced into keeping company. He was still not entirely sure if he was including them, particularly his supposed master, in his specific deriding of troublesome mortals, or if they could merely be broadly considered as such. The petty-gnome, at least, was a refreshing change of pace. Marchosias had never been on the receiving end of sycophantic awe before and found it quite pleasant.
The soulpledge-human, his warlock 'master' Naxartes, by comparison, was no less awful than any greater devil, for all that he lacked even a tenth of their power or majesty. Indeed, it was because he was their inferior that bowing and scraping to him was so tiresome to the imp. There was enough of that to look forward to for the rest of eternity, right up to becoming an Archdevil in due course, without it being necessary to do so to the sub-creatures of the mortal races in the meantime.
Marchosias was reassured by this feeling every time it welled up in him. It was an important part of how a proper devil should think and act. It meant he had not yet succumbed to the ennui inherent in Núrion. There were plenty of stories about that sort of thing happening, cautionary tales told of devils who spent so long among mortals that they began to see them as something other than just primitive tools for advancement. None of the stories ever mentioned how long this took, but Marchosias always felt it better to be pessimistic about that sort of thing - that way, you could only be proven right, or be pleasantly mistaken.
So far, unfortunately, he was being proven right at regular intervals. His warlock was especially dull because his capacity for self-deception was so great that Marchosias rarely needed to intervene with a suitable insinuation or careful flattery. It meant a stagnation of talent that the imp was against on more than just principle, but rationale also. He had no intention of risking complacency, which might lead to failure, thus resulting in a punishment which might even take the form of demotion, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep himself in practice.
For this, as with almost everything else in the last year, he blamed those singularly troublesome mortals that had shown up out of nowhere in Mavarra. That they had destroyed the coven there was not surprising, its degeneration had progressed too far to be salvageable, but the subsequent chain of events they were embroiled in most certainly was. Marchosias was sure that nobody could have foreseen the druid who requested they come to the Ruin Woods was a relic of a bygone era, a wild card from a deck long ago thought discarded.
That druid was either uniquely mad, uniquely perceptive, or both. The Ruin Woods coven, that Marchosias had spent the better part of a decade slowly corrupting, was wiped out by a pair of other relics, gulogut whose insatiable hunger was somehow directed by the druid. Marchosias had managed to rescue his own warlock, but too late to prevent the injuries suffered in the attack from setting the idiotic human down the path of a vengeful obsession. Ironic, then, that master and familiar were now walking much the same path again.
Marchosias had labored hard to make his warlock believe the idea of rebuilding the coven from both the living and the dead of Elder Daven was his own, appearing suitably humbled and awed by the responsibility of being sent out there to deal with the specifics. In his first independent pact, the imp even negotiated an alliance with one of the undead sorcerers of that ancient city, using it to secure the obedience - and, more importantly, the souls - of the various lowlifes inhabiting a brothel. An adequate start, if not a particularly inspiring one. Then those troublesome mortals had shown up again, now looking into the means by which the undead was replenished, asking questions of the very same lowlifes that Marchosias had claimed.
The gnome, a particularly malleable tool that had been one of the more downtrodden of the mortal scum, had of his own initiative sought to eliminate them, out of an admirably useful loyalty to the 'Messenger of the New Master'. With both his and the imp’s combined effort of both sorcerer and assassin at killing the group ending in failure, he had somehow found the courage to flee the city with Marchosias, who retrospectively had realized this would only encourage the group to pursue them and exact revenge. They were, in fact, proving themselves decidedly annoying. It was then that Marchosias began to suspect them of being the "unacceptable irritant" he had been tasked with delaying or destroying all that time ago.
The imp called in several favors and made a few promises of his own. He traced their paths back, investigated their histories closely, hoped to be proven wrong - after all, he still lacked a warlock coven with which to deal with them - but his pessimism seemed to be borne out. All indications were that these four; paladin, wizard, warrior, and rogue; were very much the nascent threat that he had been sent to eliminate. It was then he joined his warlock on the path of obsession.
His reports back to Barathus would hopefully buy him some time. There were many things that he needed to consider, many possibilities and options that he had to explore before he could be certain of the direction his schemes needed to go. His daily ritual of confirmation, reminding himself of his purpose and value, began to include something dangerously close to a prayer, that by doing almost nothing he would simply outlast all these troublesome mortals and be able to pick up where he left off afterward. Explaining himself later would be a simple task by comparison.
It was not an easy thing to do, but he was gratified each day with his feelings of contempt towards the lesser creatures about him. He had not forgotten the stories that warned against losing this attitude. He had chosen to forget the stories that warned against justifying stalling for time and rationalizing dereliction of duty.
Oblivious to all this, the warlock Naxartes and the interminably put-upon Wulfram Crowsherald - a meaningless but impressive title (as so many of them are) bestowed upon him by Marchosias to bolster his resolve during the flight from Elder Daven - were busily engaged skinning a calf. Or to be exact, Wulfram was busily engaged skinning a calf, whilst Naxartes was busily engaged berating the hapless gnome for his incompetence in carrying out that task.
They were about a mile outside the township of Laub in the western reaches of Daven, one of the last proper habitations of the region before wilderness took over nearly all the way to Kale City, a good three hundred miles away. Naxartes intended to commune directly with his patron, a feat requiring particularly gruesome reagents - gruesome, that is, to a novice like Wulfram. As a ritual of divination rather than conjuration, elements such as a virgin’s heartsblood and the ash of a sun-slain vampire were unnecessary, quite aside from being wearisome to source. The warlock did not explain precisely why he felt the need to speak to his patron and Wulfram, in all truth, did not wish to know. Neither suspected that it had been Marchosias who had steered Naxartes into making this decision.
Eventually, the preparations were complete. Naxartes intoned the necessary formulae, Wulfram cowering behind him and covering his face with appropriate awe, and Marchosias resisted the urge to yawn, having seen far more impressive sacrificial communions in his time. With a theatrical flourish of the sort he seemed incapable of resisting performing, Naxartes drew upon his own magical power to set his hands alight, then hurled the black flames onto the altar, still chanting words of invocation as the fires consumed the offerings. In the thick smoke gathering above, refusing to travel with the wind, a hideous and cruel face began to appear, twisted with loathing and malice.
Now even Marchosias quivered before the apparition forming in the smoke, though he did so because he recognized the face. It belonged to the terrifying horned devil that had delivered to him this assignment and its contract. No matter the personal power of such an entity, it was not enough to grant a warlock’s abilities by means of a pact. Naxartes was clearly ignorant enough to believe that this was the devil to whom he had signed away his soul, but Marchosias knew better. The true patron was keeping themselves hidden and merely using this horned devil as a front for its own inscrutable purposes. Its unmistakable, unforgettable, thunderous voice sounded out from the image.
"IT IS BEST YOU EXPLAIN THIS INTERRUPTION SWIFTLY. I HAVE MATTERS TO ATTEND TO THAT FAR EXCEED YOUR CONCERNS IN IMPORTANCE. YOU RISK DISAPPOINTING ME WITH THIS."
To his credit, Naxartes did not flinch. He merely set his jaw and answered: "My coven was assaulted. Even I suffered heavy wounds. I know who was behind it and I want retribution. My servants have been unable to provide that as yet, so I turn to one who can. I turn to you, O Great Belphegor."
"THEN I AM DISAPPOINTED WITH YOUR LACK OF ABILITY. I DISLIKE BEING DISAPPOINTED, NAXARTES. IF YOU CANNOT EVEN SURROUND YOURSELF WITH ADEQUATE MINIONS TO PERFORM SUCH A SIMPLE TASK AS EXECUTION, PERHAPS YOU DO NOT DESERVE THOSE MINIONS YOU DO HAVE. NOR ANYTHING ELSE."
Offended on behalf of the warlock, Wulfram somehow plucked up the courage to stammer out: "We tried better than anyone else could. I set three of the best killers I knew on them, then led a horde of undead onto them. The Messenger even brought a second horde, led by a mighty sorcerer. They were all torn to pieces. I’m sure if the Master himself had been there, things would have been different. It was us that failed the Master, not the Master failing you."
The terrible visage turned itself to the gnome, staring down with a cold, amused smile for a few endless seconds of fear.
"BE TROUBLED NO FURTHER WITH THAT REGRETTABLE INCIDENT. A MORE CAPABLE AGENT HAS ALREADY BEEN DISPATCHED. WHEN THEY ARE BECALMED AND VULNERABLE, BELIEVING THEMSELVES SAFE UPON CLEAR WATERS, THEN SHALL THE STORM DESCEND AND THE SLAYER RISE."
The mortals looked suitably impressed with that pronouncement. The imp, by comparison, merely looked dubious. Respectable devilish paranoia alone would suggest that a lone combatant was not apt to succeed in its murderous task. Allied as it was to Marchosias’ own pessimistic streak, the end result was that he doubted whatever assassin was sent after the quartet would not succeed in killing a single one of them. It might inconvenience them for a few minutes at best, but then would be put down again. By the next day, they would be fighting fit again and this time, aware of being hunted by a powerful enemy. In effect, they would be backed into a corner - and that was when an enemy usually became the most dangerous.
Still, this had also given Marchosias the chance to assess how the situation appeared on the other side of the planes. So far as he could tell, he was very nearly exonerated of the embarrassing slaughter that had taken place in Elder Daven. Better still, it seemed to be the case that the pressure was no longer purely on him as a consequence! He would still need to claim enough souls to qualify as a warlock coven before being able to return to Barathus and receive payment, of course, though the original implied time limit no longer applied, to all intents and purposes. Overall, the imp thought, this situation could have been a lot worse.
"So, this is Arden. It...actually looks like a respectable place. I don’t know what to think about that."
Aidan shook his head in good-natured despair. "The only one you are apt to fool with that is von Lanburg, Isolde, and he isn’t here yet. Come on, what do you really think?"
The halfling grimaced. "We are in big trouble. I don’t care if it’s the natural consequence of going up in the world. I don’t like being the target of demons."
"Devils, actually," Brokk corrected her. "The transferral of magical energy required an orderly supporting system of cross-planar ritualizations that-"
"Can you not at least try to speak Kingdom Common when explaining something? I could possibly handle that, maybe even Davenian. But whatever language you’re using, that I haven’t a clue with."
Brokk frowned for a second, then laughed it off. Like the rest of them, Isolde was just scared. Reasonable enough, given their current situation. Angering a devil was nothing like angering a human, or even an elf, who could reasonably be expected to die or be killed off with relatively little difficulty. Devils were vastly more resilient creatures, simply reforming in Barathus if destroyed outside of it, insulted by their defeat and entirely willing to exact vengeance on the descendants of those who had vanquished it.
There was, however, one major advantage when dealing with devils, rather than with demons. It was not a particularly pleasant advantage to stomach, but an important one to keep in mind nonetheless. Simply put, a deal could actually be struck with a devil and be adhered to. If the negotiations were conducted properly and the agreements signed with all ceremony, a devil could be relied upon to uphold its end of the bargain for the rest of time. Brokk suspected that this was one advantage they would not be able to make use of. Had Aidan not been a paladin, but a common warrior of Heshtail, things might be different, but as they stood, his holy vows would prevent him from entering into any kind of pact.
For the time being, the four of them would need to rely on cold steel and strong wills to survive. It had served them well enough so far, but Brokk knew they would need to add to what they had in order to keep doing so, now that they had caught the attention of the denizens of the outer planes. As soon as they were finished in Arden, Brokk would insist they continued to travel northwards - and then, further west, deep into the Liberated Kingdoms. There were resources in those lands that he could make good use of, provided at least one of the scholars with whom he had exchanged much correspondence over the years was still alive.
His musings were interrupted by the relieved groaning from behind him, as Embla Aslaug staggered down the gangplank onto solid ground, followed by a clearly nervous Karl von Lanburg, who had been worried that she would simply fall and crush him had he gone in front. She was already looking better just knowing that she was no longer aboard a ship, and again Brokk wondered at the overland trek she must have undertaken to reach Zeland from Eruna. The story there was one he was very interested in hearing, but it would have to wait for another day.
"Herr von Lanburg, as I recall, you were to accompany us to the individual we are supposed to meet?" Aidan asked, uncharacteristically overlooking Embla. "We do have the directions, but your father seemed to think an introduction would be useful."
"That is correct, Herr Gottsritter, if you will follow me."
Brokk raised an eyebrow at the title but said nothing about it. 'Knight of God' was an adequate descriptor of Aidan, after all, but von Lanburg had been addressing him by name until now. Perhaps the fight against the Drowned Dead and surviving to reach Arden had brought out his sense of duty completely. Perhaps he would show nothing but cold military professionalism from now on. Brokk hoped not. Prior to being laid low by seasickness, the young von Lanburg had proven himself a pleasant conversationalist and a charming wit, better suited to life as a courtier than a soldier. He had certainly shown skill in his inherited line of work, but Brokk suspected he might have been a far greater man in a gentler time than he was now destined to be.
There was, however, one thing he did have to ask: "We are going underground, yes? Ugh. Of course we are. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a dwarf feel disgust with that prospect? The last few months certainly have enjoyed the challenge..."
"Let me enjoy a few more minutes of fresh air and I will join you shortly," said Embla, eyeing the mine entrance with a certain despondence. "I didn’t get much of it on the way here, after all."
When they looked set to wait for her, she gave them an exasperated sigh and waved them inside, pointedly turning her back to them and facing the sun. Taking the hint, they walked inside and began to review everything they knew, which was a depressingly small amount for something so important. Much of it was simple corroboration of Brokk’s theories with the hard-earned answers gained by the Marshal von Lanburg, or rather the unfortunate specialists he had hired to try and discern how to destroy the necrotic artifacts hidden throughout Daven. One thing that did interest Aidan was how, in a mine that even to his untrained eye clearly had plenty left to give, this particular artifact had remained undetected for so long.
"It was simply abandoned after a very sudden declaration of ore exhaustion," von Lanburg stated, referring to his notes. "Presumably whoever installed the device within had something to do with that. It took a considerable time to even locate it, then clear away the obstacles. As you know, the undead cares far less than do the living about such things in their way. At least we will be able to reopen the mine after the device is dismantled."
"Now, I should warn you," he continued somewhat unhappily, looking at the next sheet of paper. "It says here that the investigator here is something of an eccentric. Very territorial. He is harmless, no matter how unpredictable and violent he may try to make himself seem. However, we should expect extreme verbal hostility from the beginning. Apparently, we just need to wait for him to get tired."
The warning came just in time. Even before they had crossed the threshold, they were accosted by a furious barrage of insults and threats, none of them feasible (or, in the case of the insults, true). On actually entering the chamber, they saw the originator of the diatribe, a figure that seemed vaguely like a cross between a dwarf and a human, but, so far as they could see, none of the positive features of either. His posture lacked the grim pride of the dwarves or even the stoic resignation of humans, and between each outburst, he tittered and mumbled nonsense to himself. His clothes were ragged and visibly crawling with flies.
He stood just slightly taller than Brokk, so wiry that he seemed more emaciated than lithe. His skin was a uniform blue-white, pockmarked with tiny pink scars, some still bleeding from where he had scratched viciously at fleas. Thin patches of filthy hair, presumably white and silver underneath the dirt, dotted his scalp. There was no color to his eyes save a milky yellow-whiteness, but they darted about so frantically that it was obvious there was nothing wrong with his vision. The overwhelming impression was of the pallid cave horrors that had never seen the sun, from the eyeless fish that swam the hidden waterways to the colorless roaches and centipedes that subsisted on each other and the offal of larger creatures.
Aidan’s brow furrowed in suspicion and he looked his question at Brokk, who nodded, lips so tightly pursed they were almost invisible. This could be nothing else but a priest-engineer of the derro, the consequence of a long-ago lunatic’s experiment to purify the races of man and dwarf of evil, by dragging it out of them and giving it a body of its own. Derro were irreparably insane sadists and tinkerers for whom the touch of sunlight could be fatal after sufficient exposure, forcing them to hide in the deepest regions of the world, below even the farthest delvings of duergar and drow. They were ranked among the vilest of all the dark folk, albeit one of the rarest.
The insanity of this one had clearly been harnessed by the desperate Marshal von Lanburg to solve the far more serious undead problem facing Daven, but that in no way made Brokk, or his friends, any less inclined to kill the wretch on sight. Astonishingly, the derro was actually hopping up and down in his anger, spitting syllables that might have been some kind of language in his twisted mind. After some minutes, they idly began to wonder if the sound of it was infected with a contagious madness, as there was occasionally a series of noises that seemed nearly comprehensible as an actual word. Then the derro simply stopped.
The rant ended so abruptly that for a moment, Aidan was convinced Brokk had cast a spell of paralysis on him. Slack-jawed, wide-eyed, the derro stared behind them with frank and unrestrained interest. Aidan suddenly realized what it was he was going to see when he turned his head to look also. A moment later, von Lanburg did as well, though even then he found it more difficult to believe than almost anything else in his life, the madness of the derro notwithstanding. Next to them, Isolde snorted laughter, letting out a yelp when Brokk elbowed her to shut up, and none too gently at that.
From where she stood in the archway, her face void of expression, Embla stared back silently at the strange little creature watching her so hungrily. She let her eyes drift over to the others for a brief moment, but apparently found nothing there that she wanted. Slowly, she allowed herself to smile back, striving for coquettish and failing miserably, not that it seemed to dissuade her admirer in the slightest.
Aidan curled his lip at the solution which had presented itself, but there was that old adage about desperate times and desperate measures. He would find a way to make it up to Embla after they had got what they came for. Besides, he reassured himself, even Brokk’s magic would struggle to force her into doing something she refused to - and she had clearly taken the initiative in the matter.
They divided into two groups thereafter. Brokk began to work with the derro, Ambrick the Savant, resisting the urge to conjure a sunburst whenever the lunatic turned away to stare at Embla, who was standing nearby and heroically looking interested and admiring whenever the derro said anything. Aidan, Isolde, and Karl retreated to the other side of the chamber and just watched the scene unfold. Every so often, they would look at each other instead, trying to think of something constructive to say. Even Isolde, who could normally be counted on to salvage any conversational impasse, found herself completely stumped. They found themselves going in circles and even then barely returning to where they had started.
Much of it, they could determine, was that none of them had seen Embla as a woman before now. Aidan had effectively been introduced to her as a self-sufficient berserker of mysterious Eruna, blinded by the gratitude of her saving his life, whilst Karl freely admitted that she simply did not conform to his old-fashioned Davenian ideals of what a woman should be like.
For a while, the two had tried to argue that their perspectives were skewed because women were the great mystery to men of all races and cultures, until Isolde countered that she had found Embla no less peculiar. Hints or comments picked up on during their conversations formed a large part of that, but there were other signs too, which Isolde bluntly stated only a woman would notice.
This perplexing statement aside - which did nothing to dispel the men’s belief in Woman as Ultimate Mystery - the only conclusion they could draw was that they had all, in their own ways, thought of Embla as less than the person she was, but merely her profession. A part of this was justifiably due to still knowing so very little about her and her people, but now someone who was wholly ignorant of everything about her had taken notice of her body as more than just a weapon. They were not sure if that was the clarity of madness at work or just the inexplicable nature of lust, and less certain which of the two they preferred it to be.
Sometime after agreeing on this, Aidan managed to catch Brokk and ask his opinion. Irritably, the wizard had snapped back, "Why not ask Embla herself instead of bothering a cursed old man with more important things to worry about?"
There, Aidan’s courage had failed him. He had taken one look at Embla, now leaning provocatively over one of the plinths and tracing a finger along the inscriptions on its surface, listening closely to Ambrick jabber incomprehensible explanations as to their function, and his nerve had broken. As ever, much of her was on display, for she was proud of her scars and physique, but actually acknowledging it to her now seemed like a terrible idea. The derro had no such instinct for self-preservation and was all but drooling, his imagination no doubt going to places that Aidan had too much respect for Embla to wish to contemplate, even second-hand.
For the first time, though, he really had begun to wonder about the life she had left behind. Brokk, he knew, had nothing to go back to, and spent his time consoling himself with trying to decipher the ancient tablet he carried with him. Isolde tried to give the impression of being a gold-mad mercenary bitch, but as a survivor of Zeland’s gutters, she knew the value of money more than most and would use whatever she could to care for her family still struggling in Zel City. Aidan himself had a home among the ranarim elves that were his cousins, almost untouched by the Dark Occupation, but, like Isolde, he feared going back and facing the scrutiny of his family. But what was there back in Eruna for Embla?
"He said he never thinks about it," Aidan lied unconvincingly to the others when he returned to them and felt ashamed when they accepted it despite knowing it was untrue. "He actually told me to ask her myself. Turns out I’m scared to."
Isolde barked laughter, but she had seen the wariness others showed around Embla, even in the eyes of the battle-hardened von Lanburgs and the rest of the Driddaren. She cast her mind back to the tiny villages they had paused in on the way to the Ruin Woods, especially the one called Tanner’s Rest, where Aidan had finally lost his temper with them. With her, specifically, for using Embla to defend against those she rightfully angered cheating them out of their earnings. That was how some part of her still saw Embla, as a tool of fear, perfect for intimidating peasants whose only crime was agreeing on to gamble with a wandering hositan.
That was something she suddenly realized she had to apologize for - not merely as in 'it would be the right thing to do', but actually 'this is something I must do'. It was a strange feeling and one she wasn’t sure she liked.
If this is that guilt thing the priests like talking about, she thought to herself bitterly, "they are welcome to dole it out among paladins and the other rubes. Honest thieves like me can go without our share.
As far as Embla was concerned, this was a long way off from being the most difficult thing she had ever been asked to do. That had been the final trials of her suitability to be a true Aslaug of the Risarvinnae, which had nearly broken her; exactly as they were supposed to, of course, otherwise there was no point to them.
Besides, she had not technically been asked to do this, any more than she had been asked to be tested. It was simply a necessity, no different to breathing, though she suspected that Aidan at the least would not see it that way. They did not understand that their silence had been order enough, that through their inaction they had left no other alternative but to play this part.
It was not that she objected to this manipulative arousal of the derro, no, her complaint was of a different nature. After all, as Aslaug, Embla had been taught to use her body to serve her own ends since before she could crawl, taught that the very act of living required the active desire to do so. The only limit on what she could do was what she wanted to do. That was the underlying truth of the world, for all the amusing inaccuracies produced by the so-called philosophers and sages of other lands. To Embla, there was no problem, and if there was, its solution was simplicity itself. Her friend needed vital information from a stubborn fool who wanted her. Therefore, distracting the fool out of his stubbornness would help her friend get the information.
Brokk was no fool, as befitted one who made use of the Clever Craft. The wizard saw her ruse for exactly what it was and gave her ample freedom in the role, leeching knowledge from Ambrick and adding it to his own. He grew understandably wearied by the constant interruptions, most of them due to the derro becoming too distracted, but a few by the others, who meant well but sadly were still ignorant. Embla would need to educate them on the matter when she got the chance, else the risk of them disrupting the process would become too high for comfort. She knew also that it would be Aidan who would give the game away - had not her first words to him including the truth of his nature, villtri, the foolish one? How little things had changed.
She and Brokk, however, worked well together in unspoken agreement. "So what does this mean, exactly?" she would ask, wide-eyed, and Ambrick the Savant would oblige her, Brokk listening carefully to the explanation and asking all the questions he needed to.
Or he would signal the need to introduce a different idea and she would say, "I think I heard another explanation once, what was it, do you recall Brokk?" and then between them, the dwarf and derro would tear through the problems to find a solution that best pleased them. The details were all beyond her, but this was entirely acceptable. Embla was not a practitioner of the Clever Craft and it was not her place to understand any of this.
Yes indeed, it was clear what needed to be done, both now and later. As soon as they were finished here, Embla would make sure the others knew what their roles were. The Davenian would be the easiest to handle. As a soldier, he would simply obey the order not to interfere. Isolde and Aidan would respect her request to do the same. She could talk more with them afterward and clear everything up between them.
But for now, there was a self-styled savant to deceive.