The Mists of Daven
By R. Krommydas
Three expectant faces watched Brokk as he sat himself down, rubbing his temples. The dwarf looked exhausted and with good reason. It had been ten days since he and Ambrick had joined forces on their project, and whilst the derro had always been insane, Brokk had made implications that anyone working for too long on this would probably end up a little deranged, regardless.
Right now however, his friends, and Karl von Lanburg in particular, were waiting to hear his verdict on a different matter, a concern that had been troubling them almost for as long as they had been in Arden. It was a little thing, apparently inconsequential and easily forgotten, but Isolde had not let it slip from her mind, and brought it up with the others as soon as she could get them away from the derro.
Before leaving Elder Daven, they had been told that the outpost here had gone silent. That, despite all lines of communication apparently being clear, there had been no more reports coming in from Arden, from either the militia forces guarding against remnants of the occupying forces, or from the four Driddaren stationed to keep watch on Ambrick whilst he worked. Yet they could all see clearly that nothing was wrong in Arden. So much was not wrong in Arden, in fact, that Isolde flatly refused to let any of them sleep without one of them on watch.
Eventually, she had persuaded Brokk to ask Ambrick about this, for if anyone in the know was liable to expose the truth, it would be the derro. Madness and lust on their own were enormous points in their favour, but combined, these served to make Ambrick as clay in a potter’s hands. And, as Isolde flatteringly explained, Brokk was the potter in this metaphor. Unlike the rest of them, he would be able to manipulate Ambrick to reveal anything he knew and not be found out in the process.
It had taken a few days to reach, but he had his conclusion: “Treachery. I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. Arden is not on the side of a liberated Daven. I am sorry, Karl. The Driddaren your father had posted here are dead. Those men keeping Ambrick under guard are the baron’s thugs. He rather likes the idea of having the country for himself.”
Karl von Lanburg started in shock, spluttering disbelievingly, “The baron? Not Wilhelm Siegfried? Him? Baron Siegfried? The baron Siegfried? The same baron Siegfried who led the vampire purge in Irrol, that baron Siegfried? He may not be loyal to King Godric in the same way as the Driddaren, but he would never act against someone who wants the same thing!”
He looked around for understanding among the others, gathered gloomily in Aidan’s room. He was not reassured by what he saw on their faces.
“Daven is in shambles and order – Order. Must. Be. Restored!” he said firmly, a fist in his palm hammering each word home. “King Godric reinstated the ancient order of the Driddaren to do this. My family was honoured to be chosen to help in this noble cause. No, Elder Daven is not yet cleansed of the filth infesting it. All Daven needs purification to sweep across it. We have much work to do. All of us, from highest to lowest.”
Brokk nodded. “And whoever is left standing tallest will rule it all. Godric’s claim to the throne may, or it may not, be a true one. It is not my place to question that, especially as no contender has appeared to challenge him. But he is very visible. He is very active in his efforts to reclaim Daven for the living. Now with the secret of how to destroy, or wield for oneself, these devices on the verge of discovery, the only one who can match Godric would be…”
“Ambrick is mad, we all know this,” Karl argued mulishly. “And one of the dark folk, more importantly. He cannot understand such things as honour. Loyalty, truth, justice, freedom, love, joy – all things he would crush underfoot if told to by…you know. Even if he isn’t lying deliberately, which I think is most likely, he might just have had made a mistake.”
By means of answer, Brokk looked over to Isolde and just waited. She shifted uncomfortably, then sighed. Knowing what that meant, Aidan cradled his head in his hands and groaned, trying to imagine exactly how much trouble might have come from being found out if they were in error.
“I’ve gone through their things and scouted the manor,” Isolde confirmed. “Though if you knew I was doing that, Brokk, I’m clearly losing my touch. He’s paying six silvers apiece for the grunts, twelve for their captain. Weekly, no less. One of the maids drops it off, dolled up like a street-walker to avoid notice. Or possibly one of the local whores earns something on the side as a maid. Same difference. Same woman.”
From somewhere beneath Aidan’s hands, there was a muffled “Gods damn it, Isolde.” From Karl von Lanburg, there was instead a heavy, defeated whine.
“There is one positive to all this,” Brokk added, though his expression said otherwise. “Ambrick is mad. Obsessed by the device. He will not stop studying it until he knows everything about it, no matter who is paying him, be it von Lanburg or Siegfried. Or if we intervene now, von Lanburg paying with confiscated Siegfried property. Treachery, after all, must be punished.”
There were many things that tended to depress Aidan when he stopped and thought about them. The continued occupation of his homeland. His brother, Cirne, a Living Martyr doomed with personal vendettas from the demons he enslaved. The myriad petty evils so commonplace in all towns and cities as to be unremarked upon, save by the most pious of men. To a certain extent, his own occupation, or at least its grim realities that he had never paused to consider.
All that he had gone through in the last year or so was a further trial. The goblins that had simply swarmed over him, right before he met Embla. The horror of Mavarra, when he shamefully did not try to save dominated villagers from death. The rape of his memories, the flaunting of his fears by that abomination below the Ruin Woods. Orcish poison scorching his veins at Zeel City, then filth-water fever in Elder Daven. Learning what it meant to drown not two weeks ago. First not thinking of Embla when they disembarked and then seeing how much much he had taken her at face value.
Now, based entirely on the proof Isolde had uncovered, he was trusting a gutter runner with his life and confronting a famous, if overly ambitious, folk hero in a land that desperately needed such people to inspire it. The outcome of that was either his own death or that of his friends, or the exile and shaming of a legitimate force for Good – albeit one whose personal morality was decidedly south of that.
Above all else, however, his continuing friendship with Isolde was a knife twisting in his sanity. He trusted her with his life, if not his purse, but she never tried to steal anything, except when gambling with peasants, but gave the money back after a fight, even if she always claimed to hate violence, then again she always got Embla to do that for her, but was just as brutal and bloody in combat, but but but but…the litany of confusion just went on and on. Unlike in the stories, people, it turned out, were complicated and many-faceted things. He didn’t know what to do with that.
So, as he struggled to work everything out, Aidan sat away from the others as they listened to Isolde make their plans. He knew what his role would be in any case: to explain the situation to the baron calmly and rationally, to express their demands calmly and rationally, then to beat the defiant man into a pulp calmly and rationally.
Actually, that sad duty would not be his, but Karl’s. As he was one of the Driddaren, the younger von Lanburg would be acting with the complete faith and approval of the Marshal von Lanburg and, implicitly, King Godric himself. Aidan’s presence there was more a practical type of formality, to keep the expected aggressors off his back whilst he delivered the king’s justice to the traitor and take possession of his estate.
And of course, we all know what clever little girl will be more than happy to value the seized finances, Aidan thought spitefully, before chiding himself on his churlishness.
He felt a tingle along the back of his neck and he rubbed at it absently, feeling the hairs there on end. A similar feeling rippled its way down his back and arms. In its wake, his blood seemed to boil for the barest instant. Aidan froze for a second, then shook himself violently and stood up, lips curled back as though he’d just bitten into something foul-tasting and, in a sense, he had. It was realization.
With a yell, he threw open the door violently, letting it slam behind him, ignoring the startled questions from those he left within. He took the stairs three at a time and hurtled through the inn’s common room, out into the street. It was late enough that there were none to see him, but Aidan would not have cared if all Arden had gathered. He turned his face to the darkening sky, a pale silvery glow in his eyes.
“My lord, Benevolent One, Heshtail Most-Merciful!” the paladin screamed heavenwards. “Hear me well! In my heart, I have been failing You. I have been weak, but no more! I hereby renew my vows to You. If no other wish of mine reaches You, then let this be the only one. Protect me from doubt, for there is no greater agony! Show me this mercy – and if such is my destiny, I shall carry Your light to the very throne of the Darkest God and bid Him kneel in Your glorious name!”
There was no answer from the heavens.
Unless, as a singularly deadpan Embla suggested a few minutes later, the numerous yells for him to shut up and let a hard-working citizen get some sleep counted as an answer. The majority of them had, after all, invoked the same god as Aidan, if in a more expletive-laden manner. He was not entirely sure if she was actually joking either.
“I have no doubt, I have no fear, all is as it is meant to be. I have no doubt, I have no fear, I swore to obey, I swore to be dutiful. I cannot break, for certainty is my shield and courage is my armour. This will be endured.”
Looking askance at his companion, Karl asked, “Crisis of faith coming back to haunt you? I hear that happens as you get older.”
“Very funny Karl,” said Aidan dryly, strain showing in his voice. “I don’t begrudge most people not taking religion seriously, but for those of us who do, it is a pillar of strength we dread to see weakened. My father said that more than our armies were broken when the Wintervale marched on us. Our faith was broken too, our faith that the gods would protect the innocent, or at least the more faithful. He would know. Better than either you or me.”
The young Driddaren shrugged noncommittally. It all seemed like too much of a risk-reward partnership to be worth it, more of a crutch than a pillar, if no less crucial to stability. As a soldier, he knew the value of a different kind of faith – faith in the greater intelligence and wisdom of his commanding officer, faith in the necessity of obeying their orders. His superiors were there, present and real and influencing his life just by being near. The gods were distant figures, touching the mortal realm only through their priests. And was it not interesting that it was the priests who made all the claims about and enforced all the rules of the gods?
As far as he was concerned, the only difference between a priest and a wizard was the way in which they used the same magic. Equivalent, to his mind, to a soldier who fought left-handed as opposed to with his right. A sword in either hand would kill just as readily, as would a spell of either arcane or ‘divine’ origin.
He had learned to keep these thoughts to himself. Most ordinary folk were not interested anyway, but magic-users of all stripes, priest or otherwise, were especially prone to take offense at them. Even if he had been that type of gambling man, there was no reward to the risk of angering such powers. Granted, there was no risk here with the half-elf either, which only meant that Karl had absolutely no reason at all to start up this discussion with him.
The door Aidan was holding shut suddenly bulged under the force of the blow on the other side and the paladin heaved back against it, forcing it fully closed again. A bellowed demand for their surrender floated through the barrier, then the hammering resumed. Aidan took up his litany again through gritted teeth. In a way, his strength was inspirational, and Karl knew it was more than just his body that was keeping them both safe. He could not resist, however…
“So, what exactly is Heshtail protecting us from if being butchered by Siegfried’s men is more merciful?”
Aidan growled back, “Upsetting Isolde. Trust me, this is immeasurably better. Now, get ready to switch. I need a minute. On three. Three!”
And their day continued in much the same way it had begun.
Leaving Brokk and Embla behind to continue their work with Ambrick the Savant, the other three members of their little ensemble had gone to the baron’s estate first thing in the morning. As part of the plan she had devised, Isolde broke away before they actually reached it, to circle around and sneak in from a different side, whilst Aidan and Karl went in through the front door.
Almost at once, the problems had started. The guards were noticeably hostile, not merely obstinate, only backing down when Karl invoked Driddaren authority – though they made no effort to hide contemptuous smirks at the implied threat. They knew full well how few the Driddaren were and, more importantly, how ill-equipped and ill-trained. Besides, Arden was a long way from Elder Daven when it came to deciding where to deploy these paltry few soldiers.
Once inside, they had been met by the baron’s chief of staff, Hils Rourke, a self-important Kelerite popinjay in a ridiculous feathered hat and liberally doused in Kalish perfume, who had bluntly refused them further admittance for so long as they remained armed. The man did not budge an inch even when Aidan suggested that such obstruction might be, if only by unreasonable men and certainly not themselves, considered treasonous.
So the paladin ended up handing over his warhammer and the soldier ended up handing over his sword and shield. Neither failed to notice the look of satisfaction on the man’s face as they did so, though as with the guards at the entrance, he had made no attempt to hide it. Then the pair were led to a small antechamber, with a curiously large number of doorways, and instructed to wait until the very busy baron was ready to see them.
Aidan, in fact, did wait – though only until Rourke had left the room, at which point he picked a door at random and threw it open. There was a very satisfying crunch and yell of pain as he broke the nose of the nearest approaching guard on the other side. Deftly, Aidan grabbed the dazed man’s sword and threw it to Karl, then kicked him back into his fellows.
More would-be assassins poured in from the other entrances. The first, his confidence bolstered by numbers, charged straight forward onto Karl’s new blade, not even seeing it until it was too late. Aidan promptly claimed his weapon and touched his back to Karl’s. Suddenly the onslaught became very survivable, if bloodily so.
Facing armed warriors, trained and desperate, was not what the baron’s troops had been expecting. And had they but known, not just any warriors. One was Karl von Lanburg, a veteran of the ceaseless war against Elder Daven’s undead infestation, weaving a pattern of death before him, unafraid of mere mortals and his wrath inflamed by their treachery. And at his back was Aidan of Zel, a true paladin of Heshtail, his faith restored and his purpose once more clear to him, grown mighty indeed with the invaluable experience of the survivor.
The exchange of blows lasted no more than a minute. Two lay dead at the Driddaren’s feet, his enemies bleeding from countless smaller wounds; and five had been slain by the paladin, offering his enemies grim mercy by causing as little pain as possible.
A gap appeared in the encirclement, dismay and doubt doing as much to weaken their foes than any bodily harm, and the pair broke through it at once. Not pausing to catch their breath, they raced through the maze-like halls of this death-trap disguised as a baron’s estate. It was not long before they found themselves at a dead end, able to do no more than block off the only door to their prison and wait it out.
At one point, Rourke’s voice had reached them as he castigated the guards for their failure. Karl said he thought it sounded far harsher and more guttural than before, as though the man’s anger was breaking down his self-control. Aidan knew this was the truth, for he had recognized the tones and rhythms of the speech – had heard them much of his life, in fact – and knew they belonged not to a true human, but an orc-blooded one, no doubt disguising his half-breed nature with his copious amounts of extravagance and perfume, and maybe a little magical assistance. That ridiculous hat stood out as a likely culprit for that last part.
So now, exactly as they had known going into this, it all depended on them. Specifically, it all depended on them keeping the full attention of most of the baron’s servants, keeping the rest of the building practically empty for Isolde to do her part. Knowing that this had been part of the plan from the start did not, of course, make it any less exhausting or dangerous.
A few had not answered the call to battle. This was not a problem for the shadow that danced through the halls and chambers, flashing death in each hand. One oversized brute, more ogre than human, nearly felt the blades slipping through the gaps in his armour, driving the breath from his lungs. He managed a surprised gasp before falling silent forever. And Isolde Amero Ballussia moved on.
All this was part of the scheme she had devised the night before, astonishing her friends by scrapping all those previously worked out meticulously. Like the rest of them – and most of the surrounding area – she had heard Aidan renew his vows to his god. Unlike the rest of them, it had turned her mind to her own, rarely thought of as they deserved to be in these times. Then, inspiration had blindsided and overwhelmed her, and her bloody role in this was made clear.
Where she encountered an actual servant, she faded from view and took stock. Most were allowed to pass, being of no import. No call to kill those who were just trying to make an honest living, after all. Some exceptions had to be made, of course, such as the maid who delivered the pay to the false Driddaren, or a financier adjusting the baron’s papers to cover for such payment. And Isolde Amero Ballussia moved on.
There had been a single brief argument over her decision, but it had surprised her for having come, not from Aidan, but Embla. Despite all the time that had passed since Tanner’s Rest, the brief non-explanation she had been given then had been remembered and brought back up – ‘a con’, that was how the key component of this had been described as. This was true enough, in a sense, but that was what made it so perfect.
At one point, her course took her unhappily near to the distraction. Elvish curses were clearly audible alongside Davenian ones, overshadowing even the screaming steel and the screaming men. A horrific smell assaulted her nose, masquerading as a perfume, making it clear that the baron’s chief of staff was near also. Her blades quivered with the urge to taste his blood, but it was too risky to be involved there. And Isolde Amero Ballussia moved on.
Religion was not something the hositan in Zeland were able to enjoy much – aside from anything else, food was too scarce for a proper feast – and growing up, she had not given much thought to the dying past of her people. Suddenly, she found herself with a chance to be as hositan ought, to think and act as they had been made to. Bunga knew, this was a chance that came along far too rarely to be ignored, even by one such as her.
At last, she reached her destination and surveyed the dining hall. It was more perfectly beautiful than she had imagined. Nobody in attendance to cause distraction. Wine and sweetmeats laid out in readiness for a fine luncheon. Daven’s recent history and uncertain future poised on a delicate balance. Even her own self, bringing with it all the attendant stereotypes and prejudices of a halfling. And Isolde Amero Ballussia did not move on.
One of the ancestral halfling virtues, alongside such stalwarts as loyalty and honesty and perseverance and dutifulness, was descansio. It had no direct translation in any other language, though the elves touched on it with their more long-winded phrases for ingenuously inventive improvisation. However, right here, right now, there was no other way to describe it but ‘victory’.
Baron Wilhelm Siegfried of Arden, the Cleanser of Irrol, smoothed down an errant hair and frowned again at his reflection. Elegantly dressed, immaculately coiffured, suitably armed; ah, but presentation was everything. It was vital to his pride that he appeared every inch the noble and heroic figure he was made out to be by the vulgarians of this benighted realm. They must never know, was his creed, until the throne was his, and at his back (and preferably guarding his front also) an army of the dead.
When the Days of Liberation came to Daven, his father had been one of the victims, unbeating heart pierced by the fabled blade of Bartarius himself. Still a boy, Wilhelm was waiting to grow into adulthood before joining his father in vampiric unlife, only to find himself needing to hide the truth, and appear devastated and betrayed by the ‘revelation’ of his father’s nature. For a time, he had hoped his new life would be sired by his many-times-great uncle, the Graf Balaur, until that too had died with the ancient, secretive vampire lord two years earlier.
A chance still existed however, now with the added allure of being the master of all Daven, not merely one of the many nameless puppets of one who himself had danced on the strings of distant Wintervale. It would merely take a few more years, but Wilhelm knew the value of patience. Immortality would afford him all the time he wished, and infinitely more besides, to do all that he pleased.
His musings on his appearance and future both were suddenly rudely interrupted. An imperious voice, one he did not recognise, was calling his name from the rooms beyond, demanding his presence as he might order one of his servants. A flush of anger rose on his cheeks, burning his ears, then subsided as he focused his mind. Patience, he reminded himself. There would be time enough for him to brutalise whatever arrogant interloper dared to summon him.
Outwardly calm, inwardly raging, he stepped out of his chambers and into the dining hall. Of all the things he expected to see, a halfling woman in crude leather armour, her face twisted in mutual pleasure and contempt, was not one of them. Wilhelm fought to control himself as she poured herself a messy glass of wine – by the gods, that was the 8084 vintage! he realised – and quaffed it merrily, tearing an equally messy chunk out of a chicken leg she held in her other hand.
“And whom do I have-” he began, only for the half-eaten chicken leg to smack him wetly in the mouth.
The halfling stood up on the chair, his chair, and curled a lip at him, mocking: “Whom am I is not the issue. Whom I represent is, Wilhelm. Did you think you could hide your plans, even from the west? The east sees them no less clearly than you do, oftentimes more so. I have come to see if you are worthy of your petty little schemes.”
Something in her tone caught his attention. Wilhelm narrowed his eyes, thought carefully over what she had said, then put on his most disarming smile. Her expression did not change in the slightest for the better. Indeed, she seemed even more disgusted with him. Thinking quickly, he abandoned his outer veneer and let his anger show, storming up to the table and hand reaching for the sword at his side. Now her expression did change, to one hinting at approval.
“You dare more than any ought and be allowed to live,” he growled at her. “Intruding into my home. Eating my food, drinking my wine. Addressing me improperly. Striking me with a chicken. And that is what offends me the most. This tunic, I will have you know, will retain these stains forever. It is worthless to me now.”
The woman actually laughed at him, and Wilhelm fought back the urge to charge forward and run her through. “Indeed, but what is pride in one tunic compared to all the riches of Daven? What is this one paltry meal compared to the joys of eternal feasting?”
Suddenly Wilhelm was paying her all of his attention. His anger receded and cold calculation moved in to replace it. There was an opportunity here, one he had longed for and had apparently arrived far earlier than he had expected. He was not a stupid man, and he had caught the hints she had dropped for him. Moreover, there was something oddly poetic about it being a hositan, of all creatures, that had come for him. She seemed to read his suspicions.
“Yes, Wilhelm. If I dare more than I ought, then ought not you reciprocate? Tell me whom I serve. Tell me why I am here. Speak openly the name of the one you would replace…the one that we would have replaced with a worthier vessel.”
He hesitated, if only for a moment, then gave his answer, “You come on behalf of the Wintervale to test me, and see if I am worthy to take up the mantle of Saithith, he who was Lord of Gluttony and Eternal King of Daven.”
The hositan smiled and Wilhelm could taste immortality.
Inside her head, Isolde was laughing hysterically. The baron was clearly not a stupid man, but he was most definitely a foolish one. To believe that a halfling was looking for a replacement for the Lord of Gluttony, just because they were known for their great appetites, was one of the most hilarious idiocies she had ever seen, no matter the trail of implications she had left for him to follow to that exact conclusion. Granted, indulging her stomach was its own pleasure, but to do so for the noble purpose of outwitting a traitor made it an even finer one.
“We have an understanding then,” she said, mind racing through all the various possibilities now open to her. “First and foremost, I apologise for rushing you, especially so soon after a meal.” Not that he had eaten yet, but Isolde had, and to her that was more important. “I meant what I said. The west knows. It has sent assassins to Godric the pretender to use against you.”
The baron nodded. “Yes, I am aware. Five of them, in fact. Three of them are with my pet derro, helping him to bring the Construct of Necrotic Reconstitution under control, though they think he means to destroy it. They will be disposed of by my men when the time is right. As for the other two, they have already visited me today. My chief of staff has arranged for them never to leave.”
This was the opening Isolde had been waiting for. “Is that why they killed a dozen of your soldiers and escaped the trap?”
The baron’s face transformed in an instant, not disbelieving but not wanting to believe, and finding doing so impossible. Isolde watched the play of emotions, reading them clearly. As his rage reached its peak, she let out a long sigh, shaking her head disapprovingly.
“Now Wilhelm, you know perfectly well that this sort of thing is not acceptable. Relegating such a duty to halfwits and dullards? Needing to be told of their failure by another? Your forerunner did that. Look how eternal he ended up being.”
Isolde saw from his expression that she had him hooked, so decided to reel him in.
“Fortunately for you, all is not yet lost. As these particular assassins have a history that we find most offensive, I do believe a solution may be found. Bring me their hearts and you will be forgiven this oversight. Do not be burdened with doubt. They are no match for you. Or rather, with any luck they will not be. And we change luck to suit our needs, Wilhelm.”
She held out a hand, palm up, where an ordinary-looking pair of dice rested. She closed her fingers over them, then opened. The dice gave a different total. Again and again she performed this trick – a sleight of hand that should barely have fooled a child, but which the enraptured baron swallowed whole – until she was satisfied with his belief.
“Now, listen to what you must say to them…”
After some time, the hammering stopped and a more subdued conversation was audible through the heavily battered door. It was not the only thing that had suffered from raw attrition. Aidan’s breath came in short, juddering bursts; and Karl had given up fighting the uncontrollable shaking of his hands. Almost anyone else would have already been crippled with exhaustion, but sheer mulishness was carrying the pair now.
From beyond their prison, a commanding voice sounded: “Trespassers! I who speak now am he who you came to murder. Though rightly I should let you be dragged from that hole like rats, your tenacity and courage permit you a more noble death. I, the baron Wilhelm Siegfried, offer you this ultimatum. Come forth and duel me with honour, or perish as vermin do. Come forth, von Lanburg, disrespect your station no longer. Come forth, Aodhaen, knight of mercy and foolishness.”
Even so wearied and confused by this turn of events, Karl spotted Aidan’s eyes lighting up with sudden understanding, literally so, as a faint glow in their depths rose up to the surface. The half-elf wore a cold expression, a thing only describable as an unsmile on his face, that the hardened Driddaren shivered to see.
Before he could stop the man, Aidan threw open the door and strode out. Karl froze, expecting to hear death strike at once, but there was only silence. Bewildered, he followed Aidan out, though what he saw still made no sense to him. The guards that had had them trapped, that had been baying for their blood not a minute earlier, had been pulled back. A tall, dark-faced replacement stood in waiting for them, grotesquely resplendent in finery worth a year’s food to any Davenian farmer. A cruel confidence was etched on his features and Karl knew that this was indeed none other than the Baron Wilhelm Siegfried himself.
What little remained of Karl’s courage began to slip away from him. Aidan, however, positively bubbled with eagerness. To Karl’s astonishment, the paladin paid no attention to any save the baron, even as he passed between the ranks of the guards, exposed to a killing blow from either side that never came.
“These are not the weapons we came to kill you with,” Aidan stated baldly, throwing down the sword he had taken. “Our last request, should you prove our better, is that we face you with those we walked into this house with.”
The baron Siegfried nodded as though this was entirely reasonable. He snapped his fingers and immediately one of his men brought forward Aidan’s warhammer, and another returned Karl’s own Driddaren sword and shield, emblazoned with the heraldry of the royal hippogriff – though such a creature had not been seen in Daven, never mind ridden by a King’s Champion, for at least eight hundred years.
“It is only proper for a duelist to die with his own blade, or hammer, in his hand,” the treacherous nobleman commented lightly, the absence of fear in his voice unsettling Karl enormously. “Aodhaen, your good fortune has run its course and I curse you. Come, knight, break against me as water upon rock.”
Aidan still had his terrible smile on. He took a step forward, noting the complete lack of concern that Siegfried still exhibited, then swung the warhammer once, twice, thrice. Each blow connected perfectly, but his foe barely swayed. He showed no hint of pain, and Karl knew some protective sorcery was at work. This was not a fight they could win. Still, his honour demanded he die carrying out his duty as best he was able.
Clearly getting nowhere, Aidan stepped back, and Karl took his place. With lightning speed and precision, he stabbed at the baron, each time his sword clearly piercing the flesh and emerging unbloodied. Dismayed, he dropped his shield and brought down his sword in a mighty two-handed strike that, to all intents and purposes, merely bounced off the apparently impervious Siegfried.
This was hopeless.
Once, long ago, Karl had heard an expression that had traveled all the way, so it was claimed, from the mystical realm of Yrrkune, beyond even the borders of the dreaded Wintervale. ‘A single grain can tip the scale’, was how it had been translated to him. He had understood it to mean that sometimes, the greatest of changes can be brought about by the slightest of things. He had understood it correctly.
The grain here was a question that Aidan asked at this moment: “What number was shown by the throw of the dice, baron?” and Karl saw Siegfried’s complacence disappear in an instant. Realization struck loyal Driddaren and treasonous baron at the same moment. Karl, his reflexes and training the superior, moved the quicker. This time, his attack drew blood, far more than it ought for a wound that had been meant as relatively shallow. Siegfried wailed in shock and pain, and began to scrabble to draw his sword to defend himself.
Having seen the proof of his adversary’s vulnerability, Karl von Lanburg, here the representative of King Godric, honourably waited until the baron was properly armed. Only then did he close in, triumph blazing in his eyes and adding righteous power to his every strike. Around him, bewildered guards tried to decide whether to aid their lord or flee. The first few of the boldest were immediately subjected to a single pulverising blow from Aidan, and the rest chose discretion.
Knocked down by their panicked flight, Hils Rourke struggled to his feet, fully intending to join them. He managed all of two steps before a silver agony gripped his heels, sending him to the floor again. Squealing in terror, he turned on his back and saw his death, a grim-faced halfling woman whose daggers were painted with his blood. Right before they sank into his eyes, however, the blades divested him of the absurd hat he wore, along with its concealing magics, revealing him as the orc-blooded wretch he truly was.
For Wilhelm Siegfried, this was the last straw and he shrieked rabid incoherencies at the three who had brought him low, his already-precarious sanity tipped over the edge by the rapidity and totality of his defeat. Disgusted, the names of the betrayed Driddaren posted to Arden on his lips, Karl von Lanburg drove his blade into the traitor’s chest. Ribs splintered under the force of the blow and a crimson spray leaped into the air.
And with that, it was over.
As they emerged into the fresh day, Karl turned to Aidan and asked a question of his own: “What throw of what dice did you mean back there?”
The half-elf looked at him, an inscrutable half-smile now dancing on his lips, then nodded to Isolde, who gave the answer: “The throw of Bucca’s Dice, my friend. A con worthy of the Tunnel King Himself.”
Still confused, Karl rubbed the back of his neck and Isolde took pity on him. “When we get back, I’ll explain everything.”
The fleeing guards of the baron spread word of their master’s death, and of his ambitions – though with a few details of which they were ignorant, such as the artifacts of undeath hidden across Daven, being kept out of things – but to Aidan’s relief, the people of Arden were not hurled into depression or despair at the news. Apparently, the harsh lives Davenians had to endure had given them a practicality and a resilience beyond the norm for common folk. To them, reports of their local hero being a scheming traitor only out for himself just made them shrug and claim the events as unfortunate, but typical of their lot in life.
Somewhat less to his relief, Karl von Lanburg insisted on recording the actualities so that he could report on them accurately when he returned to Elder Daven. This would mean learning what Isolde had been thinking when she devised the plan to topple Siegfried, and require plenty of explanation from the others as to exactly why they went along with its madness. Aidan, correctly, predicted this would not go down well.
“You had no plan?” Karl exclaimed at the revelation, stupefied and not a little appalled. “You had us walk in there with no plan except ‘you two go and fight thirty armed soldiers’? And you all knew and understood this?”
The four friends nodded in unison, and the Driddaren clutched his head in pained disbelief, spluttering, “You, you! But how? The baron came to us, so confident. Then everything was so strange. You just walked out to meet him, Aidan. Then we couldn’t hurt him until you said something else. I saw it in his eyes, when he realised he was vulnerable again. But I…you said it was a dice throw, but I don’t understand. What sort of dice have anything to do with combat?”
It was Aidan who spoke first, a little shamefaced. “You heard how the baron addressed me? He called me ‘Aodhaen’. That is my birth name, in my native Rhunsdhain. ‘Aidan’ is merely its translation into Kingdom Common. He knew to call me that because Isolde told him. It was a message from her to me. That, once again, she stole back Bucca’s Dice from me. I WILL find a way to stop you from doing that.”
Karl’s expression went utterly blank, purest incomprehension overriding everything else. Isolde, helpfully, produced an ordinary-looking pair of dice and held them out for inspection. When this failed to enlighten the man, she made as if to roll them on the table, and Aidan snatched them from her palm before they could fall, his anger and worry evident.
“We will just take them back again some other time,” the halfling said, giggling at Aidan’s expression. “Those belong to my people. Hold them for a day or a year or a millennium, but they will see Westdelving.”
To Karl, she finally gave the answer he wanted: “Those dice were created by one of our gods, Bucca, hence the name. To cut a long story short, he threw them away for reasons, then they turned up again among mortals. Their magic is all but useless to most races, but to a hositan, they may – or they may not – be very powerful.”
“And completely random!” Aidan interrupted. “The only certainty with them is that trying to control their outcome backfires on you and only you. Still at random times and in random ways, because apparently Bucca decided to make them out of raw chaos-stuff.”
Isolde smiled broadly. “So I used their only rule to cheat their only rule. I’m hositan. I’m a rogue. Bucca would approve. I tried to call upon their magic to make myself resistant to harm. The baron was nearby when I did that, so because I was technically his enemy, the dice made him practically invulnerable. Of course, then I got him to go away and fight you instead of me, until the protection wore off and doubtless made him more susceptible to injury. I’m guessing on the eighth hit? I thought so. I rolled a seven on the dice, you see. Makes perfect sense.”
There was a half-derisive, half-admiring snort of laughter from Embla. She clearly considered the whole thing to be utterly nonsensical, but as it had produced a good result, the so-called plan of having no plan was a good one. She could tell by Aidan’s face that he did not approve, but then, he wouldn’t. It was harder to tell what Karl thought of this. She guessed he was still trying to work it out and failing. One question did occur to him, however.
“How, by all the gods, did such magic come into your hands out of all possible ones?”
Isolde remembered that time well. Often she wished she didn’t. But for Karl, she merely shrugged and said, “Just lucky I guess.”
It was a very different Isolde who left Kelerak from the one who had entered it. The horrible fate of Baldrin, the enemy she had made in the torture-adept Koorlsh by not sharing it, the dark truth about the Zelish underworld of which she was a part – and, a glorious reprieve from the bleakness, the lunatic clarity of the Silver Duke and his gift to her – these had all combined to force a new world-view.
Two months after her escape back to Dragonspur, she crossed the borders into Zeland once more. She carried with her a number of trophies recently acquired, to prove how some of the secret lines of communication between occupied east and liberated west had finally been severed.
It had been a brutal and chaotic expunging of the hidden evil there. Isolde had never believed herself cut out to be a death stalker, trained in the art of assassination rather than thievery, but her guerrilla war had disproved that notion. She first replaced the halfling messengers, repaying their fall to true evil with blood – thieves avaricious and grasping they might all be, but to whore their talents out to the servants of the Vale was inexcusable.
Then she turned her blades onto the drow overseers whose orders came up from Orland. Mingling business with pleasure was always a dangerous proposition, but Isolde did not care. One by one, the corrupted elves fell before her, drawing out the Kelerite traitors who worked with them. Most of these she spared her tender mercies. There was one man she trusted still, a spymaster for the Sons of Moonlight, to whom she gave their names instead. Their public executions would do much to bolster the faction’s legitimacy, and that of their sponsor-founder Lord Felmund, in the turbulent political arena of Kelerak.
Despite all her successes, one thing continued to worry her. The ducal signet ring of the Eaglesreach, the genuine one, was still in her possession. It had to be, since she had managed to confirm Koorlsh’s claim that it had been cursed to inflict madness. Isolde suspected a part of the curse was working on her, dissuading her from ridding herself of it, tempting her to wear it. Yet to discard it, or try to destroy it, or give it to another for safekeeping, were thoughts that she avoided, for no reason that she could identify. The ring wanted to be worn and used, and she wanted the same.
One option had presented itself to her, but she needed to back in Zeland for that. Specifically, she needed to be back in the good graces of Papa Keller, Baldrin’s uncle and guildmaster of the Association’s holdings in north-western Zeland. This was part of the reason why she was collecting trophies of her victories.
Presenting these to Papa Keller (actual name Franca Gregora Torrezzi) would let him claim credit for ridding the guild of dangerous partners, and make her offering of tribute to him less suspicious. A standard collection of coins, gems and other such pretties would form the majority of this offering. But, and this was crucial, the finest example of ringwear needed to be the signet ring of the Silver Duke.
Papa Keller was one of those hositan who truly lived up to the old saying ‘he is a man with a belly’, meaning both figurative power and courage, and literal enormous amounts of fat, as if the two things were inextricably linked. In the occupied territories, for a hositan to have both in equal measure was nearly unheard-of. It did wondrous things for his reputation and the respect he was given.
But, he had a problem. His ears were good and they told him of mutterings in the ranks. Too many murders were happening, they said. The secret police were not staying bribed as they used to be. His favoured, but idiotic, nephew disappears into Kelerak, bragging about a secret mission he was entrusted with. Finally, the money was not coming in as much as it used to.
For Papa Keller, this rumbling discontent was an offense. It suggested to the other guildmasters that he could not keep order in his own house. It was early days yet, so he could root out the cause and obliterate it before it became an embarrassment. He knew that Panta Amero Ballussia in particular would be happy to seem him discredited – it was his only daughter, after all, that had accompanied Baldrin to Kelerak and disappeared along with him.
And as Panta was also agrosso pancchio, a man with a belly, and worse still, one who was not part of the Association, he would be a terrible opponent to face if Papa Keller found himself on the defensive for once. That he could command so much respect as little more than a freelancer was, to put it bluntly, terrifying to the hardened crime boss. Simply killing him was out of the question, as he had actually married into the Association and was thus protected by more than just their rules. Even genuine accidents were things to be worried about.
Everyone recalled the famous bridal speech at their wedding. It was traditional for a hositan bride to make the same vapid promises as her husband, to love and serve and protect each other, yet for all the weddings he had been to, Papa Keller had never before heard and believed them. Part of it was the cold certainty in every word. Part of it was knowing just what the Mamacita, what Droggo Marie Ballussia nee Zalucchio would do, slowly and with great pleasure, to any who crossed her.
I am a superstitious woman. A ridiculous failing, but there it is. I know many people do not wish our marriage well, yet I forgive them that. But should some terrible misfortune befall us, my superstition would have me think it was the result of the ill will some of you here might bear towards us.
Certain guests had paled, Papa Keller among them. He had been one of the most vocal in opposition to the marriage. It would be bad for business, he had argued. Several others had agreed with him, but it had done no good. They knew now why, despite this, they had still been invited – to hear this warning of the Mamacita. Then she had continued.
Should he be stabbed by a goblin, or bludgeoned by a troll, I will blame your disdain for our union. Should a lightning bolt from the gods strike him dead, or the Hells devour him on a whim, I will blame your disapproval. And that ill will, that misfortune, I shall not forgive.
All this, however, paled into insignificance next to certain questions coming up from Orland. His contacts there were perturbed by the breakdown in communication with their fellows in Kelerak. Since the letters and missives between the two were part of Papa Keller’s jurisdiction, any fault for a breakdown lay squarely on his shoulders. It was a weight he did not appreciate, since early rumours from Kelerak suggested either Baldrin or Isolde were involved – and then Isolde herself had reappeared with proof that it had been.
Before a horrified audience, she had piled her trophies – drow ears, hositan tattoos, human fingers; to name but the most grisly – and announced the extermination of a threat to the Association. Papa Keller had seen immediately that the only way to salvage this was to have evidence manufactured to support her claim, enabling him to claim credit for this bold initiative.
Dealing with the angered Orlanders, however, was a major preoccupation of his thoughts now. Even if they believed the proof, their own drow overseers would demand bloody retribution for their dead kin. The obvious solution was to sacrifice the Ballussias for this. Aside from anything else, it would provide Papa Keller with the satisfaction of having finally won one over Droggo and Panta, and silence the dissenters in his ranks. The other guildmasters would appreciate his cunning and respect him all the more for it. All he needed now was a convenient excuse to present the Orlanders with his enemies.
As he considered the details, he idly toyed with the fancy ring that had been among the tribute Isolde offered – a recompense, she said, for causing him worry with her absence; and serving also as weregeld, payment in blood and gold, from those who butchered his beloved nephew.
It was a pretty thing. Silver, with a copper inlay and set with tiny jade stones. Probably belonged to a nobleman’s child, as it fitted on his finger perfectly. At first he had thought it too large for him, but that was clearly a mistake. Rings did not shrink down to suit their wearer, after all! That was exactly the sort of magical nonsense he despised in the tales that were such popular fare these days.
Somehow it was reassuring to wear it. Comforting. Things would work out. There was no need to panic. No need at all. Just needed to have the Ballussias killed. A job six thousand years overdue. Sloppy work. He would not have allowed such a thing in his outfit. It was good to be reminded of his duties.
The cursed signet ring of the Silver Duke began its work.
What had been intended to befall Kelerak instead became the doom of the Association. Unjustified beatings and executions became commonplace under Papa Keller, handed out for the slightest of infractions. His men deserted in droves, encouraging him to press those of other guildmasters into his service. They fought to retrieve their soldiers and punish the increasingly deranged Papa Keller for his presumption.
As each devoted more and more of their resources to this task, their power was weakened and the vultures that were their peers began to circle. One would descend and begin to feed, in doing so making themselves vulnerable for a time. Alliances of convenience were formed and discarded overnight as the guildmasters turned on each other, tasting ultimate control of the Association.
Zeland’s underworld was thrown into confusion and bloodshed. From Orland, drow moved in to seek vengeance for their failed designs for Kelerak. They were indiscriminate. Already dying from self-inflicted wounds, the Association fought back with all it had left. It did nothing but make their slaughter more entertaining to the drow. Papa Keller was one of the few to survive, though this was not to his liking: he was taken alive, and back to Orland, never to be heard of again.
The purge was completed inside of a month. Being wise enough not to attempt to stretch themselves too thin, the drow established puppets in Zeland to replace the Association. Being so predictable as to do this, they failed to notice their ‘puppets’ were the survivors of the purge, those who had withdrawn from the conflict entirely and still had much of their old strength.
Among them were the Ballussias and the families most trusted by them, who Isolde had warned of her plan. They had wisely chosen to accept the small losses of not resisting the infighting rather than the total destruction of joining in with it. Isolde herself had stirred up more hate between the Zelish and Orlander factions, leaking information to both sides that only increased the body count and animosity. Whenever possible, she focused on the drow, since even if she did so exclusively they would still survive the war.
It was during this sleepless time, after a raid on one of their ‘safe’ houses, that Isolde retrieved a cache of magical items that the drow had themselves liberated from some Association vault. Most of these were of little account. A few wands and potions, a peculiar ruby necklace she later sold to a Havenish smuggler, daggers and clubs, and suchlike. One item, however, had no doubt mystified the drow as to why it had been included in the vault: a pair of dice, utterly ordinary in every way.
Isolde, as every halfling before her, knew otherwise the moment her fingers brushed their surface. Their magic was potent and subtle, when it so pleased them, and most of it would be hidden from all save a hositan in any case. Understanding of what they were grew in the garden of her mind like a weed.
Bucca’s Dice had lain dormant for too long and they begged to be used again, just once, surely that would not be so terrible? Isolde knew better than to give in to the compulsion of rolling them in any serious capacity. Instead, she played with them as she might any other pair of dice. They were not cursed, exactly, not in the same way as the Silver Duke’s signet ring – but they were very insistent that being rolled was what they were supposed to do. So long as that was happening on a regular basis, the negative effects of their magic was kept to a remarkable minimum.
It would not be for many months yet, after Isolde met a half-elven paladin and an Erunian warrior looking for help with a warlock coven below Mavarra, that any other knew of the rediscovery of Bucca’s Dice. At which point, after the flames were put out and a very confused sheep turned back into an annoyed innkeeper, the very drunk Isolde was in no condition to keep Aidan from confiscating them.
Of course, she was still one of the finest thieves left alive in all Zeland and Aidan was…well, Aidan. Retrieving them every so often was not difficult.
At the same time as Aidan and Karl were besieged, and Isolde was stuffing her face, it suddenly became Embla’s duty to reorient Brokk away from murder. Neither had even considered the possibility that it would be Brokk, studious and calm, whose composure would break first. It had been a little thing – but one of dozens, as Brokk later tried to justify to himself – that had finally tipped him over the edge, to lose his patience with the derro Ambrick.
Their day had started no differently to any other of the last eleven. Embla woke first and immediately began to exercise, straining her muscles to their fullest. By the time Brokk was up and ready to go, she looked half as large again, sweat-drenched and reeking. At any other time, she would use a scraper to clean herself off, but a test from the previous week had proven that Ambrick became even more malleable if she did not.
After a quick breakfast, the pair descended into the mines and met with Ambrick. He would hand over his mostly-incomprehensible notes from his night musings to Brokk for examination, then proceed to gawp at Embla without shame. For her part, she would continue to stretch and pose as though on gladiatorial display, though it was really for his lust.
Then the real work would begin. Subtle and overt magics both were deployed against the strange device, seeking out its vulnerabilities, testing its defenses. As the only true wizard present, Brokk supplied most of the spells, with Ambrick adding only a few here and there – apparently, the twisted natures of the derro extended even to how they used the same magic as other races, making it difficult to qualify exactly what sort of spellcaster he was.
From time to time, they would take a break to discuss their findings and theories. Ambrick had taken to sitting on Embla’s lap during these, one hand reaching across his entire head to massage his temples, a sight that Brokk found increasingly uncomfortable with each new day.
On this particular day when everything nearly fell apart, Ambrick had been gesturing wildly while trying to detail one of his ideas. After one especially violent gesticulation, he began to slide from his seat and scrabbled for a handhold. His grubby fingers closed on Embla’s breast and for a moment, Brokk thought he saw in her eyes the terrifying berserker madness that had carried them through many a desperate battle.
It was partly his fear of this, and partly his own outrage, that made him leap to his feet and seize Ambrick by the hair. With a burst of force, he hurled the derro fully to the ground, cracking his head again the stones. Brokk’s eyes blazed with eldritch power, magic boiling in his soul as he transformed the spells he had already prepared into the one his hatred desired.
The words of a particularly black curse rose to his lips, an incantation he had never believed he would be willing to speak – and which, had he been thinking clearly, he would have recalled that he lacked the power and knowledge to cast. Brokk could feel a necromantic force surging into him, a bolstering of his not-inconsiderable magical ability, but thought nothing of it, all his focus consumed by loathing.
As he spoke the final syllables, a pressure fell across his mouth and chest, stopping both speech and breath. He fought to complete the spell, struggled to spit out the curse and see the vile derro wither into dust, but it was no use. Whatever force had hold of him was simply too strong. The magic he had invoked ebbed away, like a falling tide, and as it did so, Brokk’s mind cleared.
He relaxed and the pressure on him lifted as Embla released her iron grip. The dwarf took a deep breath. Shaking, he returned to his chair and sat down. Embla watched him carefully, making sure he was not going to faint or anything else equally stupid, and then moved over to Ambrick.
In a confidential, motherly tone, she spoke nonsense to the dazed and bleeding derro, not all of it in her own language. At one point, the words ‘jealous’ and ‘petty-dwarf’ floated past Brokk, and even in his own shock, he realised that Embla was trying – and more incredibly still, succeeding – in turning this to their advantage.
In Ambrick’s madness, he would see this as confirmation that Embla was interested in him, enough to defend him even against her friends and allies. What had nearly been a disaster was turning out to be a godsend!
But Brokk had a new question he needed answering. As Embla comforted Ambrick, he looked over suspiciously at the strange construct they were trying to understand. Its limbs seemed to be drooping a little, as if tired or drained of energy. Flecks of rust, where none had been before, were visible along the iron bindings.
The simplest explanation, so Brokk had always been taught, was usually the correct one. Here, the simplest explanation was that the flow of magical energy had been reversed. Whereas the device normally stole magical energy to keep itself powered, able to rebuild destroyed undead and send them out into the world again, for a moment it had been the victim of theft.
And it had been Brokk who had stolen from it.
Ambrick chittered, laughing at the suggestion when it was made to him. Too simple an explanation, he had said, so simple only a simple mind could have thought it. What a ridiculous weakness such a magnificence to have, in any case. If all that it took to disable the work of necromantic genius was a flash of jealousy, all such achievements would collapse on themselves the moment their creator’s rivals heard of them!
Brokk ignored the spurious counter-argument. The insult it contained was far too petty to anger him in any case. Especially now! The truth was so close, so very close, that the wizard could almost taste it. For the first time since he had learned the extent of the Dark Occupation, of the atrocities it had visited upon its conquests, Brokk felt as though a decisive blow could be struck against it.
True, three nations had already been liberated, technically speaking. But there was so much more work to be done. Kale was slipping into pre-feudalism, where even a royal authority held no sway over local nobility. Kelerak was perpetually on the verge of civil war. Daven was being bled dry, its people fleeing or being devoured by the unending legions of the walking dead. And just over the borders, the forces of the Wintervale prepared to retake their lost territories.
Yet here they were. They were on the verge of a discovery that would end the unassailable hegemony of the undead in Daven. Living soldiers, less easily replaceable, would need to be sent to reclaim the country for the Wintervale. It might do no more than delay the inevitable for a few years, a decade at most. But a few hours was a long time in war. A few years? Who knew what might appear to turn the tide in that time?
There was much that still needed to be done. Tests and experiments aplenty, under as many conditions as possible. Brokk found the thought of all the necessary work to be invigorating. He also found himself thinking that Ambrick would be of increasingly little help.
The dwarf made himself a promise, however. As long as Embla was willing to put up with Ambrick, he would not make a move against the despicable derro. Even the least bit of assistance would be welcome. And in due course, Brokk could kill the foul creature once its usefulness was at an end, with a clear conscience.
He might even amuse himself by presenting Ambrick’s corpse as the last to be dissembled by the necrotic device. Using evil to destroy evil was not a thing that he normally advocated. But all things considered, it felt sufficiently like poetic justice to be worth it.
As he had expected, Isolde approved of his idea. She had heard of what happened from Embla, and had approached Brokk later that night – rightly suspicious that he had not fully let go of it. The two had spoken for a while and agreed that Ambrick could not be allowed to live, no matter how helpful he had been thus far to their cause. He was a derro, after all, and leaving such a creature to wander Daven, or beyond, with what he knew was unacceptable.
Aidan would doubtless argue against it, as would the von Lanburgs, younger and elder alike. For such as they, honour still trumped reason more often than not. Isolde thought it likely that Embla would be eager to deal the killing blow herself, but would be happy with Ambrick’s death no matter how it happened. She thought this, Brokk quickly learned, because she had asked Embla that question before coming to speak with him.
From the next day, their routine carried on much as it had before, with little in the way of change. Embla woke early to prepare her image for Ambrick, then she and Brokk went to work on him. Karl von Lanburg, in his official capacity as a Driddaren officer, scoured Arden’s militia for good recruits and finding none that met his standards.
Aidan and Isolde accompanied him, the latter no longer needing to spy on the baron’s holdings, offering combat training to those who had nearly satisfied Karl’s minimum expectations. Isolde had to be dissuaded from charging for this service, but with that aside, the encounters went well, and the hopeful militiamen were assured that there would be regular visits from Elder Daven to check on their improvement.
The familiarity of the routine was comforting, in its own way, a calming time especially for the four friends who had come out of Mavarra and survived the Ruin Woods. They had crossed entire countries in the last year, fought terrible opponents and come closer to dying several times than ever they had before, either together or separately.
They would have been less relaxed had they known of the hate-filled eyes watching them, peering across the miles through smoked glass and clouded water.
Naxartes had ordered they move from Laub, which was far too provincial for his tastes, and cross the Misty Lake to New Daven. It was a more suitable location for a man of his grandeur and ability, though still barely sufficient. The warlock dispatched the gnome first, to prepare for his coming, then Imp too had been sent out to find acceptable servants.
Between the two of them, they had managed to procure an adequate house. It was not the palatial estate his talents deserved, but that would come in time and with patience. Naxartes had developed a very thick skin, after all, from living in the squalid tents of the Circle of Twelve Moons for so long. His former coven had been such pitiable wretches.
They could not withstand even such a brutish ambush as had been inflicted on them by the druid Cawlis and his minions, who now paraded themselves about Arden as though they deserved life! Now his former competition was no more than jellied filth coating the pair of gulogut that had been unleashed on them.
No such a fate for Naxartes! He cursed the incompetence of his former coven, that they had allowed such cumbersome monstrosities to attack without warning. Had they not failed Naxartes, had he been alerted to the attack, things would have gone very differently. With but a word, he might have suborned the beasts to his own relentless, indomitable will. Then well might the coven masters tremble before him, acknowledging at last his mastery over their own.
As he thought of this, the warlock suddenly realised just why he had not been warned of the gulogut. It had been no accident, no ordinary failing. Of course, his so-called superiors would have been eager to see him removed as a threat. They must have ordered the guards not to sound the alarm, in the hope that Naxartes would be killed at once. How foolish of them!
True, he had been trampled beneath them, nearly crushed as the beasts thundered over his tent into the beating heart of the coven, but he had survived, being far too mighty for such an ignominious demise. Instead of his assassination, the coven leaders had assured only their own doom. Naxartes would have had them slain for this treachery, of course, had the gulogut not done this for him.
Imp had crawled to him then, he recalled, proving its devotion to him. It was, Naxartes grudgingly admitted, a decent tool at present. Even after the collapse of his plans in Elder Daven – again, due to those same accursed fools he now scryed upon strutting about in Arden – Imp had been able to retrieve another to serve him. Granted, the gnome was a primitive and ignorant runt, but blindly loyal and obedient. It had even spoken up in support of him during the communion with Belphegor…
Actually, that was a suspicious boldness. Naxartes was all in favour of sacrificial stupidity, when it was for his benefit of course, but to address a patron devil, and one of such potential, in that way suggested a hidden strength that ought not have been revealed. It might have been a lapse in judgement from an enemy of his trying to catch him off guard. It might also have been no more than. He would keep watch on the gnome and pass judgement later.
It would not be troublesome to replace it, after all. New Daven was swarming with suitably contemptible vermin that could be turned to his purposes. A number of the gutter runners here had already begun to work for him, though they knew it not. The items they had procured were crude, but sufficient for now. Armed with scrying crystal and mirrored pool, Naxartes could keep an eye on his nemeses and they, poor fools, would not know of it until his vengeance fell upon them!
He was a little concerned by the blind spot his scrying kept running into, preventing his sight from falling on them whilst in the abandoned mine, but it would not matter in the end. Whatever protection they had established there, no doubt out of some feeble paranoia, would be insufficient to shield them from his wrath.
In the sixth week of their stay in Arden, Brokk stopped his research early. For nearly a month, he and Ambrick had effectively been working apart, only colluding with each other when there was no other choice. In the end, it had perhaps delayed the final discovery by a couple of weeks. All that remained now was to guarantee success by testing his hypothesis.
The dwarf gathered up his notes unhurriedly, gave Embla a significant look and walked out of the chamber. He heard Ambrick make a questioning noise, only for it to die away as Embla stepped up her game of keeping him distracted. The derro had grown increasingly bold with her, and she had needed to resort to ever more elaborate schemes to keep him off her – all of which, Brokk had little doubt, were being supplied by Isolde’s deviousness. The current favourite was an ostensibly traditional dance of her people which bore a curious resemblance to that of a Zelish prostitute.
He had made the mistake of commenting on this one night, only for Aidan to start querying him on exactly how he would know what such a dance would look like. It had taken a significant amount of time and effort to persuade the paladin that Brokk was familiar with the sight due to his time as a tutor for the rich and spoiled brats of Zelish and Orlander nobility, rather than due to personal experience.
The truth of this notwithstanding, what really mattered was that it worked. Ambrick the Savant, for all his mad genius, was hopelessly enraptured with Embla. He had given Brook practically no resistance to the contents of his mind, and once the dwarf had finished clearing up the problems with said contents, his work had progressed ever more swiftly
At last, Brokk was convinced he had uncovered the fatal weakness present in the necrotic devices. It was, as he had suspected a month earlier, entirely down to the exchange system by which they maintained themselves. In being open to absorb magic from whatever spellcaster happened to be within range, in Arden this being Brokk and Ambrick, they would also be open to having their own stores of magic drawn out of them.
Brokk had managed this purely by accident, just by trying to convert the various spells immediately available to him into one of pure destruction – a feat that only a very few wizards were capable of, and which taxed even him greatly. In this case, Some fading, relic connection to the magic stolen from him yet remained as he attempted this conversion, letting him unknowingly draw from the reserves held in the device, uncaring as to whether the stolen magic had originally been his or another’s.
Despite Ambrick dismissing the possibility outright, Brokk had changed his tack, working on the assumption that by emptying the stolen magical reserves, the device would become unpowered – and vulnerable even to mundane tools, unable to defend itself in any way from annihilation. The multiple attempts made to destroy its counterpart below Elder Daven had proven that it was capable of casting spells, in a sense, and of animating in order to slay whatever threatened it.
What he needed for them to do now, he explained after having presented his findings to the others, was for them to set an ambush that night. In simple terms, whilst the device drained magic from him, Brokk would be able to do exactly the same, if it was distracted by a threat – such as, for example, a paladin of Heshtail and a captain of the Driddaren trying to dismantle it.
Ambrick, he continued, would be of no help. He might even, Brokk suggested, be a danger to this plan. After all, had not the late traitor baron hoped to use him to bring the necrotic devices under control? The others took his point at once. Only Isolde knew this to be Brokk’s way of preventing either Aidan or Karl from interfering when the time came to kill Ambrick, making it easier for them to side against him if they thought of the derro as a likely enemy.
“Midnight? That’s an unnecessary dramatism if ever there was one.”
“You just made that word up, Isolde,” Aidan sighed. “But I agree with the sentiment. Brokk, how much longer do we wait?”
“Until we are all here. Don’t worry, she’ll do her part. Unless you want to go to war without her?”
Aidan shuddered at the thought. “No, no. We’ll wait for Embla to get back.”
Embla had been sent to fetch Ambrick, on the basis that he would not get out of bed except for her, and even so the derro was exactly as irritable as Brokk predicted – nobody was in a particularly good mood anyway, of which the lateness of the hour could only be partially to blame. There was a heaviness in the air, a tension so think it could nearly be cut with a knife, even on the surface. Here, beneath Arden, the cloying atmosphere was worse still. At last, however, they were all gathered.
In the center of the chamber, waiting patiently, the necrotic artifact did not so much as stir whilst it went about its thievery. Dwarf and derro both grimaced, feeling their magic slip from them to feed the device. The latter seemed especially upset, for normally he would be asleep and unable to feel the loss. Like all the dark folk, it seemed, Ambrick had no problem with theft except when it came to losing something of his own.
For the next few minutes, Brokk ignored the ever-more annoyed questions the derro leveled at him, until at last, he deemed the parasitic connection strong enough to put his plan into action. His eyes met Isolde’s, and she nodded almost imperceptibly back, hands hovering near her dagger hilts, Ambrick’s exposed back a perfect target. More openly, he turned to face Aidan and held out an inviting hand.
“Will you join me, my friend, in ridding this world of some of its evil?”
Ambrick started, finally understanding the nature of the gathering, as Aidan hefted his warhammer, a grim and eager smile on his face. In response to this, the device began to move as well, the metallic ‘branches’ around its central trunk twisting to face Aidan. At the tip of each, many-jointed fingers began to lash in a frenzy, thirsting for the half-elf.
It hesitated for a moment when Karl and Embla readied their weapons also, but only to decide how to divide its attentions between the three. Even had it been unable to fight back, there was very little chance of them doing any damage to the construct with unenchanted weaponry. But the instructions impressed upon the device during its creation did not permit for allowing such a risk.
The three warriors began their dance, darting forward and back, in and out of reach of the deadly branches that sought to rip and rend. For all that they were fighting defensively, for all their skill, it was still barely enough. Agonies raced up Karl’s arm, knowing his bones would break before his shield did; whilst Aidan trusted his armour to guard his body, instead warding off strikes to his eyes and throat, relatively unprotected. Embla, meanwhile, seemed to be singing, exultant cries spilling from her as much as her blood.
Then, exactly as Brokk had hoped, Ambrick tried to intervene. Screeching wildly, the derro lunged forward, calling upon his foul magic and fouler gods to aid him. Isolde did not move, waiting for the agreed-upon signal, even as bubbling wisps of corrosion and pain began to manifest in Ambrick’s hands. Then, suddenly, they vanished, blinking out of existence as rapidly as they had appeared.
Ambrick fell silent for a moment, looking at his hands first in bewilderment. Then fury took over and he bit at them until they bled. Having punished his hands enough, he invoked the spell again, howling with maniacal glee as the power grew, ready to be unleashed – and the spell failed again, exactly as before. This time, however, he heard the reason why, and glared over at the wizard who had nullified his magic.
“Care to try again?” Brokk laughed, enjoying the thunderstruck expression Ambrick wore. “I prepared nothing but spells to counter and dispel anything you throw at anyone.”
Ambrick suddenly became very still, watching Brokk as a hawk might a mouse. Then he rushed forward, snatching up a rock and leaping into the air, prepared to crack the dwarf’s skull apart. Just before the two collided, Brokk spoke a short phrase and let out a strong breath. At once, the derro was seized by a powerful gust of wind and hurled backwards. As he passed Isolde, she seized his ankles and hurled the airborne wretch towards the real target, so that he hit the trunk of the device hard.
At once, its ‘branches’ turned inward, seeking to destroy the thing that had apparently eluded its defenses. The derro had time enough for a single, short scream before the metal plunged into his unprotected body and began to pull him apart, completing the shattering of his mind.
“I also learned from Isolde and lied through my teeth,” Brokk added coldly, watching the awful sight unfold. “Now to finish the job.”
He closed his eyes and turned his thoughts to the magic within him – and to the magic that had been taken from him. It would hurt, perhaps more than anything else he had ever experienced, to achieve his goals. Brokk knew it would also be worth it and began. He knew which would be the first spell he needed to cast. This time, Embla made no attempt to stop him.
Pain wracked Brokk as he spoke the curse, and with the last syllable, Ambrick’s torment ended at last. Brokk’s, however, was just beginning.
“Will he recover, do you think? You have known him longer than I.”
“Honestly? I have no idea,” Aidan confessed, and Embla and Isolde muttered agreement. “I do not know exactly what he suffered. Yes, I understand that he tapped into the artifact, casting spells ordinarily beyond him to drain it dry.”
“I am guessing he spent most of that heightened magic to counter whatever the artifact tried to throw at him, since nobody got disintegrated or teleported to Hell or anything like that. But what that did to his soul is beyond me. I can do no more than suggest the healing touch of time.”
It was not the answer Karl wanted to hear, but there was nothing he could do about that. He had the answer, after all this time, to how to destroy the necromantic devices. He knew his father would accept the cost, the terrible cost, as necessary. More lives had been spent on trying to uncover the secret than would be spent on draining them dry, leaving them weak and fragile.
In his heart, Karl von Lanburg, captain of the reformed Driddaren, knew he would sacrifice just as many to achieve the same result. Such was the unhappy duty of a leader in a war such as this. It was just a shame he had gotten to know, and respect, one of those who had to pay the cost of victory.
“So where will you go?” he asked finally, already knowing the answer.
Aidan looked over at the bed, to the recumbent heap of robes and flesh that had once been his friend, motionless and silent, even his breathing barely visible. It was a hideous thing to see and he turned away quickly.
“Wyvernia, in Kelerak,” he said at last. “Brokk had mentioned he used to know people there that would be of help to us. If they are still there, maybe they can find wherever he is hiding in his mind. Bring him back out of it. It’s all we have to go on right now.”
“I wish you all the best then,” Karl said sincerely. “If ever you return to Daven, know that you have helped to make it the nation it deserves to be. Not one plagued by the undead, by fear and treason and death. You will always be welcome in the court of the king. And as heartless as it may sound, I promise you will be paid for this. It is the least we can do as thanks.”
Even Isolde was barely cheered by that.
It was a strange, subdued journey north and westwards. There was a space by the nightly campfire that was empty, and wrong. Though not particularly musical, Aidan often found himself humming the tune of ‘Carve for Me A Rock’ to replace the silence that had fallen there.
They took in turns to care for the unresponsive Brokk, swaddled in blankets on the back of a cart they had procured to transport him to Kelerak. The horse pulling it was a solid, competent yearling that refused to shy away from unexpected noises, or distant howls in the night, but fortunately had no illusions of being a charger either, for which they were all grateful.
They were three days out of Arden when Aidan finally lost his temper with them, and himself most of all. For nearly ten minutes, he swore and cursed and harangued until he was blue in the face. When he was finished, Isolde took up his diatribe, no less angered by their depressive mood, and then Embla succinctly brought the evening to a close by storming off into the night and returning with pieces of what had probably had been a wild boar.
Having vented their frustrations with life, the trio sat down by the fire and breathed deep sighs of relief. They felt immeasurably better, nearly optimistic. After all, Brokk was not actually dead and if anyone could help him, it would be those he considered good enough to correspond with on academic matters.
“And Brokk did not have low standards, either!” Aidan remembered, smiling a little. “But he was always so patient with us, no matter how often we showed our ignorance next to his. Nobody else could have solved the puzzle he was faced with.”
Isolde sniffed, “I suppose he would say we have that filthy derro to thank for it all. If he hadn’t been pawing over Embla, well…”
“I meant to apologise again for that,” Aidan interrupted, looking over at Embla. “I know you accepted it with such good grace, but we should not have allowed it to happen at all. There were other ways to get what we needed. I cannot say how sorry I am that I took the easiest way out.”
“If the destination is the same, only the witless travel the harder road,” Embla replied, almost in a lecturing tone. “You are villtri, Aidan, not missa’ghed. Foolish, but not without mind. It was a right choice, but I will not have it made for me again. I am Aslaug and to use myself for what I want is part of that, but I cannot want to use myself for this choice.”
Then, seeing she had not made herself clear, Embla struggled to translate her meaning for a while. “What is the word? Arpro-no, wait. App-ro-pri-ate. It is not appropriate for me. Even in pretense, it is not appropriate for me to act as I had to. That is what I want to say.”
Then, with her next words, Aidan felt his jaw drop nearly far enough to hit the ground. He and Isolde promptly rounded on her, demanding an explanation that she delighted in not giving. And unnoticed in his bed in the cart, Brokk opened his eyes and blinked, wondering if he had actually heard such an absurd claim. Then he decided he had merely dreamed it, and went back into healing sleep, the faintest of smiles on his lined, but untroubled, face.
All she had said was, “I am, after all, a married woman.”