Reaping in Kale
By R. Krommydas
Anneke did not look back after she started putting one foot in front of the other. Not once as she fled the smoking battlefield that had been her village. Bandits had come before and been repelled, but this was something else. The attackers had seemed intoxicated with fear, hurling themselves over the stakes, impaling themselves on her people`s makeshift spears and pikes in their desperate assault. Death in battle had been preferable to reporting back in failure.
Her husband Gilles, no fool for all his lack of proper education, had returned to the house just long to order her from it. Her last sight of him was rousing others too weak to join in her flight. Yet even as weighed down as she was, most could not keep up, and her cargo was too precious to wait.
She fancied she could hear that second heart beating alongside her own. One hand wrapped protectively about her swollen belly, Anneke vanished into the deepening night, following the secret paths she had known since she was a child. No outland raider would pursue until she was long gone, and even then there would be others, weaker than she, less driven than she, to capture first.
So she was not there at the end, when the last of the defenders were overcome, and the survivors brought in cruel bindings before the one who had ordered the attack. A warlord might have yet earned some measure of defiance from them. In the face of this creature, however, their courage failed completely.
Despite his slight build, there could be no denying the sense of power emanating from him. His eyes, glittering as if lit by some inner flame, passed over the Kalais as though inspecting cattle ready for market…or perhaps slaughter. After a minute of silent contemplation, he issued his decree.
As one, his fearful servants chorused with ritual intensity: “As You command, so we gratefully obey.”
There was no more resistance, merely despondency. Now the once-villagers too understood, or thought they did, why death was preferable. When the last of them, slave and servant alike, had disappeared from his sight, the warlock deigned to draw his robes tighter about him, fending off the despicable chill of autumnal Kale.
He was disappointed. Too few children lived in these hovels for his liking, and only a few of those he had found thus far showed any sign of promise. He might need to venture deeper into the country for more able conscripts. Not for the first time, he cursed those who had destroyed the rest of his coven – no matter that he would have needed to do so himself sooner or later, before the same fate befell him.
Thinking pleasant thoughts on the retribution he would wreak upon those who had wronged him, he snapped his fingers. A dozen spywings, the last who had survived seeking him out, squeaked their excitement. By morning, only splintered bones and charred ruins would remain of what had once been a promising border village.
The borders between the nations of Kelerak and Kale, fluid as they had been over the course of their long and involved history, had never suffered the predations of tolls or of bribe-wardens. Some miles behind them, the great watchtower of Fort Sont stood empty, an unseeing eye standing over a garrison town that these days could not delay an attack from a band of goblins.
Still, the four had passed beyond the immediate reach of the horrifying Afej the Black, the lich whose wrath they had both roused and narrowly survived. The largest of their number lay huddled by the fire, trembling involuntarily, as her burns were tended by the closest thing they had to a healer.
Aidan of Zel (though, as a Ranarim half-elf, he was technically an Orlander) had certainly been tutored in the art of medicine, for those who strained against the Dark Occupation would ever have need of it. These were far from the worst injuries he had ever been called upon to treat, and he had seen people in vastly worse condition pull through.
Unfortunately, right now he had very little in the way of ideal equipment, and improvisation was an oft-literal grave risk. Perhaps all that gave him the edge here was the prevalence of fresh herbs, for many of the finest grew in autumnal Kale, and the indomitable constitution of his patient. It had been the latter, and a stubborn temperament greater than any mule`s, which had kept her going until the former could be applied.
“That is about all I can do,” he said, shaking his head ruefully. “Thank Heshtail for that potion! When did you get it anyway? And when were you planning on telling us you had such a treasure on you?”
“Actually I`d like an answer to a question more important than those,” interjected Brokk with a frown, even looking up from his study of the ancient stone tablet in his lap – a true rarity for the wizard. “How could you possibly have afforded it? It was of, at most, mediocre quality, but even so, such things do not come cheap, and nowhere that stocks such items has them so undefended that they can be stolen without everyone for miles around hearing of the theft.”
Isolde laughed. “Relax. I didn`t spend any hard-earned coin on it. Certainly none of our hard-earned coin. A very charitable nobleman by the name of Lovelace purchased it just before we left Dragonspur.”
There was a brief, thunderstruck, disbelieving silence. An intractably innocent halfling face beamed happily at them. Brokk groaned softly and buried his face in his hands. Aidan, for a few seconds longer still stunned into immobility, followed suit with a despairing wail of: “Isolde!”
“You were the one who mentioned it first,” she retorted smugly. “You said he looked very important and very wealthy. Well, he was both – and since no thief would fall for the obvious trap of the immense purse at his belt, it was equally clear that it was the real one. So I, oh, how shall I put it? Punished his arrogance.”
Her grin faltered momentarily, and she continued in a warning tone: “Aidan. Paladin of mercy, remember? Forgiveness. Bygones. Bridges and water and so forth. It did save Embla`s life.”
The paladin growled wordlessly at the impossible moral dilemma, and resolved it by turning his back on the rogueish millstone he had willingly placed around his neck and ignoring her entirely for the rest of the evening. It was understood that this was nothing personal, not exactly. They had saved each other`s lives often enough to know that. Sometimes though, even the closest of friends have different opinions and avoiding any confrontation is just the best option.
Once there had been some times of brightness and others of darkness, yet that clarity was in the past. Pain was her world now, hunger and thirst scraping at her innards, and a deeper agony pulsing in her belly. Anneke stumbled ever on regardless, no longer knowing what she sought or how long she had been seeking it. She knew only she needed it before long.
She fell at one point. She lay there, torment ripping screams from her dried throat, for an eternity before the man-elf found her, and carried her back to his camp. In her delirium, Anneke could barely make out the details of her rescuer, or his companions. She saw him being pushed aside by a tiny woman that could only be one of the strange hositan, a race of which she had only heard in stories, but more than that was difficult to understand.
On the other side of the fire, a living mountain stirred, rose to its feet. The shock broke through the haze, and Anneke moaned in fear as she beheld the scarred giant. The halfling at her side made soothing noises and stroked her arm delicately. It helped, a little, and Anneke allowed herself to sink to the ground, accepting that this was the best that could be done.
Questions came thick and fast. Most went straight over her head. Her memory of Kelevan was faint. She had heard it as a swaddling babe, but her parents had fled Daven before she could even walk, and she had grown up learning Kalais. Still, the two languages were similar enough for a few words to pass between them.
A truly bizarre little man, utterly hairless and looking older than the hills, took over after the first halting attempts. His Kalais was spoken in the crisp, flawless tones of high nobility. Despite this, the hositan seemed to be in charge, and kept barking at the man-elf whenever he tried to say anything or come closer. She told the little man which questions to ask, and he did so, and Anneke answered as best she could until there were no more.
She closed her eyes, surrendering at last to exhaustion, and wished she could close her ears to the argument that began to rage overhead.
“I will be happy to see you on your feet any other time than this!” Aidan snapped at Embla, ignoring the wrathful glare she sent his way. “This poor woman needed medical attention close to a week past, by my estimation, even before her water broke. So sit down and shut up whilst I deliver her infant.”
To his shock, Isolde also barred his path to the extremely pregnant woman beyond, her face set like stone. He had seen that look before when there was killing to be done, and to see it now twisted his stomach. He stared back at her, trying to convey the urgency of the situation through sheer intensity.
“By Bunga, you are not blind!” he pleaded with her. “She was ready to give birth yesterday. How she has forced her body to retain the child until we found her is a question for the gods. This is not something I am ignorant of, this is not an argument we should be having, and this, hositan, is not one of your precious shires; so get out of -”
Ash and embers billowed up around him. Dazed by the sudden impact, he nonetheless forced himself to roll clear of the campfire into which Embla had very easily thrown him. As his head cleared, and Aidan looked up at the two women he had traveled and laughed and bled with, he felt his spirit quail before their matching expressions.
Brokk, wizened face even more pale than usual, helped him to his feet. The pair headed away from the camp, practically driven off by Isolde snapping at their heels, one of her many daggers actually glinting in her hand. When they had gone far enough for her liking, Isolde snarled at them to stay put until they were called for, and then turned back. They obeyed.
Even when the screaming started anew, rose to a pitch beyond mortal endurance, and fell back to silence, they obeyed.
The giantess` voice rumbled like an avalanche, and Anneke could understand only the fact that it contained an order. She gazed blankly into the night sky, hoping that she could ignore everything and float away from her pain. Instead, her head was forcibly turned to face the immense woman she had been left with.
Stuhndinen. Skirrime vheva. Stuhndinen! Yitzti, frohleyn.
Anneke wriggled, struggling futilely. Questions whirled through her mind. What did this creature want from her? Why was she being ordered to guard a thing? Did she look like this was in any fit state to do anything except lie here? Then Anneke realized something. She had understood one of those words. ‘Skirrime’ meant to struggle, or to fight, typically defensively rather than aggressively. And ‘vheva’ was very similar to…
She could not help but scream, but the moment she started trying to rise to her feet, the giantess let her go. Now, she watched the struggle, utterly indifferent to Anneke`s pain, interested only in seeing how much she would fight to protect her unborn baby. Anneke had seen this before, from the other side, when she had helped others through this. It had to be done a certain way so that mother and child had the best chance of surviving it.
Her legs threatened to give way at any moment. A warm trickle, blood or urine or both, ran down her thigh. Had she thought the earlier contractions painful? No. This fresh torture was true pain. But she was standing on her own. Anneke could almost smile. Then her legs did give way.
The giantess caught her, moving with a speed and grace belied by her great size. Arms as broad as her waist held up Anneke, pressing against her back and keeping her chest pushed out enough to allow free breathing. She wailed, the sound devolving into guttural bellows as her delivery truly began. A soft touch, feather-light, moved across her belly. The halfling woman had returned and was running her hands over the bump, feeling out the size and position of the baby.
Strange midwives, but I trust them, was the last clear thought Anneke had, before her world contracted into the struggle of birth.
Despite its smoke-seared raspiness, Embla`s voice still carried far enough to reach the men, and they walked back into the camp, nervous for a reason they could not name. On their return, Brokk, wisely, sat himself down by the devastated fire and began to build it back up into something worth having overnight, saying nothing and looking at no-one. Aidan, however, roared like a wounded bear.
Embla stared impassively at the raging half-elf until his wrath abated, then picked up the limp figure at her feet – wrapped in one of Embla`s own great blankets as a shroud, yet blood still soaked through the thick cloth in certain places – and walked off wordlessly into the twilight.
Some minutes later, Isolde returned from the deepening darkness. Her face and hair glistened, freshly washed, but there was more than enough blood left spattered about her shoulders and arms to show what had happened. The newborn she held was of a good size, which for the halfling meant only her years of hardship gave her the strength to carry it safely.
“Some mothers cannot survive births that are so difficult,” she spoke softly, as much to the baby as to Aidan. “I had to make the choice that was no choice. “
Aidan glared at her. “You think I could not-”
“No, Aidan,” she interrupted him, still in that gentle tone. “I knew you could. It was just not your place. Whatever others may think – human, elf, perhaps dwarf, I do not know your beliefs here Brokk – it is not your place. It is not a man`s place. Only in the most dire need would hositan, or Embla`s people it seems, allow a man to take part. Even so, you would have needed magic to save her. You have none.”
“I might have tried,” Aidan snarled back, refusing to back down this time. “I should have tried. I should have stayed until Embla tired of throwing me into the fire. I should have demanded of Brokk that he bind the pair of you until you saw reason.”
Isolde smiled sadly back at him. “You are my friend, Aidan. I know you. Trying to save her as well only to lose her would hurt more than this. Men seem to take it as a personal insult, from the whole world to them alone, if they have not the skill to help another who needs their aid. Pah, so do some women without the sense they were born with!”
“Now hush. Sulk if you will, curse us if you must, but hush. This, hmm, not-so-little one will sleep off the birthing exhaustion soon enough. Then we will truly have a problem.”
The night did not pass easily for any of them. Brokk had perhaps the worst of it, for his incredibly advanced years and bodily frailty meant that the dwarf had until now been allowed to sleep through the night, rather than take a turn on watch. The cries of the hungry newborn, growing ever more strident and insistent by the hour, woke him from an uneasy sleep several times.
Each time, he sat up with a start, slurring questions in a dozen languages on subjects too arcane or esoteric for rational minds to comprehend. His thoughts, normally strictly ordered and clearly regimented – usually so much so that he became insensate to the world around him – danced away from him gleefully, mocking his attempts to focus.
Dangerous. A wizard must always be in control of his actions, lest he call up powers he cannot then put down. Whilst this was true for all practictioners of the magical arts, to varying extents, Brokk was keenly aware that only mageborn sorcerers, in particular those who drew upon the unpredictable surging tides of Wild Magic, were at any greater risk than a confused or befuddled wizard.
Aidan and Isolde, for their part, coped remarkably well physically. Each pitiable wail from an infant they had no way of feeding tore a gaping wound in their heart, however. They both knew that one or the other of them would need to leave the group in the morning. They could travel faster on their own, taking the baby with them, and hope that they reached a village or town soon enough to find a wetnurse.
They made valiant, but futile attempts to tend the child, comfort it, keep it quiet (or at the very least, quieter) as much for their own peace of mind as to preserve its energy. Coming as she did from a traditionally vast hositan family, Isolde had a specialist vocabulary nearly as great as her normal one for this situation. It made absolutely no difference, and during some moments even inexperienced Aidan seemed to have better luck.
On her side of the fire, back to the others, Embla lay curled up in a sleepless ball, breath rasping free from exhausted lungs. Digging a grave without the proper tools was a fool`s task, but she had accepted herself a fool and laid the luckless mother to rest in the preferred manner of these human people. Among her own, the dead would have chosen their own funeral. Some buried beneath the earth, true, but many more beneath the open sky. Scavengers would come to gorge upon the easy meat and carried back the strength of the dead, to nourish the harsh realm that the Risarvinnae called home.
That was not to say that there was nothing in the way of challenge here. In just a few years, Embla had come closer to death more often than she had during her entire life back in the distant Greatwall Mountains. Her present condition was the result of one such narrow escape. Even more so than the others, she needed her rest. Just as much as the others, she did not get it.
Towards midnight, her own groans and mumblings joined the varied chorus. She curled up tighter, then stretched out, then tried to wrap herself around her own arms, before splaying out again in obvious distress. The others barely noticed, even when they were awake, as Embla barely noticed their own upset. All but a fraction of her awareness was directed towards the crying infant.
There was a solution to the ghastly sound. It was not one she could actually carry out as yet, but it sat there in the back of her mind, waiting calmly for the right moment to come forward and be suggested as a course of action. Blessed silence would fall thereafter. Embla longed for the dawn, and for her companions` few shared moments of sleep, to hurry so that she could end the torture of that sound.
Perhaps it was the silence that woke Aidan, deafening him despite exhaustion-addled senses. For a few seconds, he groggily tried to remember why silence was unexpected. When it came to him, he sat up in a panic, holding his breath as he sought out Isolde.
His gaze passed over a bleary-eyed Brokk, hunched over in study of his primordial stone tablet, and colossal Embla suckling the infant at her swollen breast, and at last alighted on the still-sleeping Isolde just beyond – and then slowly, disbelievingly, returned to Embla. Aidan rubbed the sleep from his eyes, tried to focus on what he thought was seeing, and promptly looked away when he realized that it was what he was seeing.
“Your sense of chivalry needs work, aelfarrir,” Embla commented lightly, making no effort to cover herself. “But please, speak your sermon and be done with it.”
Aidan spluttered, trying to form sounds that were vaguely like words, and following something vaguely akin to grammar. He managed a questioning noise at one point, and heard it quietly echoed from Brokk, who was clearly not as fixated upon his work as he had made himself appear.
With a pained sigh, Embla answered with a short and simple: “Any Risarvinni woman can do this. It just takes a few hours for the milk to start its flow.”
“Voice…better…how?” Aidan managed to squeeze out inelegantly.
“Even the worst pain shrinks back from a nurse or a mother,” came the response, in a resigned tone. “I will suffer all the more for this conversation when feeling returns to me. Now, hush. You`ll disturb the baby. And I have troubles enough trying to hold something so tiny. Get food ready instead. I too am hungry and Isolde sleeps.”
Struggling to hold onto his sanity, Aidan began to unpack what was left of their trail rations and, grimacing at the poor fare, tried to decide how best to transform them into something mostly edible. As he worked, a small part of his mind asked him exactly why he had assumed Embla would have the same qualities as the anthropic races, just because her body looked so similar to theirs. After all, his own mixed heritage gave him features that were neither wholly human nor wholly elven, and those two races were very different despite on the surface seeming almost identical.
As the morning progressed, that same part of his mind, self-critical and cold, listed everything that was wrong with his assumptions. Then it began to list every hint Aidan had been given, from bizarre mention or asides during conversation, to that which he had actually witnessed in his time with her.
The fragments of realization drifted together in his thoughts, trying to fit themselves into place as though they were the pieces of a puzzle box. A near-forgotten lesson from his training as a paladin, being taught how to survive as a servant of an outlawed god in the Occupied Kingdoms, forged the only true link between several of these pieces. The importance of the lesson had been lost on him at the time.
Why would he need to know that an oluk orc could digest metals as heavy as iron or bronze without harm, but other kinds were limited to copper and tin? Or that kobolds could smell nearly every difference between dragons, from age to sex to type to current mood, but otherwise could barely scent a dungheap they had been thrown into? Or – and here Aidan`s mind balked for a moment – or that a giantess could nurse a child that was not her own, even if she was barren or as old as the hills?
The answer was obvious: so that he might recognize the profane agents of Evil, even if disguised, should one give itself away in ignorance of his own holy nature. Though the name ‘giant’ was most usually given in ignorance to only a single group of those great hulks – and were many of them not as prone to Evil as any other creature? – it in fact covered such a multitude of horrors as trolls, ogres, and the abominable oni of the Deadlands, as to terrify any right-minded person who knew the truth.
Aidan thought back on Embla`s ridiculous claim, which he had never believed until this very moment, that she had come from a land on the other side of the Wintervale. He did not doubt that such places existed, for their existence – and subservience to the Wintervale – was indisputable. The insidious evil of the addictive Kunese lotus plant was one of the most infamous proofs of those distant, mysterious realms in the far east.
No, what Aidan had doubted was that she had traveled through those places to reach the Occupied Kingdoms, and yet clearly was not aligned to them. It seemed obvious that Embla had in fact come from a lost tribe of savages that had somehow survived among the Dwarf Peaks, or even the Guardian Heights bordering the frigid Wintervale itself.
Now the seed of suspicion, planted many months past by her chilling inhumanity and suggestions of monstrous beliefs, had grown into a choking weed wrapped about his thoughts. He believed her claim now and he feared the implications. The myriad creatures that bent their knee to the Darkest God were not necessarily aligned to the Wintervale. That dread realm would endure only so long as its ability to withstand competition from rival claimants to divine favor.
Embla had made no secret of her interest in seeing the forces of the Wintervale brought low and crushed beneath a new and glorious power in the far east. For the first time, Aidan began to suspect a hideous truth behind her veiled words – that this new power would replace the Wintervale, not merely overthrow it, and that it would be merely a different kind of oppression from the preceding.
Yet even in the grip of rising paranoia, he knew that he would need proof, actual and tangible, before he could act on this. Aidan promised himself that if it existed, he would find it. Then, though it would pain him to do so, he would ready himself to bring down the righteous fury of the heavens upon Embla, one of his dearest friends, and all her people.
Far too few miles away, had they but known, the warlock opened his eyes and lifted himself, regretfully, out of the oversized bed in which he had been luxuriating. The last village he had tapped had proven to be of no better value than any of the others, though it had contained a rare gem in a master carpenter. The man`s final work was possibly his finest.
Idle thoughts such as these were quickly banished however, as he readied himself for another gruelling morning of command. Since the inexplicable disappearance of his most useful tool, he had needed to oversee everything in person, and a more wearisome duty he could not envisage.
Perhaps there is another, he corrected himself, as his valet entered the room and began listing the day`s agenda. And they say that gnomes have some of the keenest of mortal imaginations. What ill fortune dogs me that I took into my service this vile example of all that scurrying race?
His justified self-pity was interrupted, however, as several of the former bandits he had bound to him now entered, looking distressingly nervous. It was bad news then, he knew, and his temper did not improve as the premonition was proven true. The warlock`s mood was picked up on by others besides his least valuable tools, and an anticipatory rustling of leathery wings overhead gave away the roosting skulk of spywings in his rafters.
The warlock spoke now, drawing out his vowels in the revived fashion of the ancient Kale courts, each consonant striking the ear like a clenched fist. Tone of voice was almost irrelevant, but because perfection should be a constant, not merely an aspiration, he kept his in the most genteel of accents. The effects that mere implication had on the unwashed rabble before him were truly gratifying. Who would have thought a man could grovel so beautifully?
At last, he paused. “Must I remind you of the cost of failure?”
The spywings chirruped eagerly at his words, not merely pleased to have found a new master to obey, but delighted that he was no less a cold and black-hearted fiend than their former master. He knew how best to use them and to reward them – oh, and those rewards were so much richer than they had ever been. The spywings` beady eyes glittered at the brutes pressed into service and even the most muscular of those wretches quivered.
Steepling his fingers, glowering over them at the filth that were the only other resource he had – though this was but a temporary state of affairs, of course – Naxartes considered his next move carefully. It would take several weeks yet before the excavations bore any fruit. Until then, he had to maintain control. Afterwards, control would maintain itself.
The young aspirant looked at him disbelievingly, and Ninth Moon Watcher Achenor smiled back down knowingly, saying not one word further until at last curiosity proved the greater over discretion – thus it had ever been, and was a necessary part of proving oneself worthy of advancing within the coven.
“But if such a thing exists, and has existed there for so long…” the boy started to question, then cut himself off, eyes going wide as he saw the truth.
Years of practice kept Achenor`s face unreadable. This was a rarity indeed. Few had the mental acuity to piece together the scraps of history and legend, especially when given so little to begin with. Achenor himself had been considered one of the brightest aspirants in living memory and yet had needed to have the facts spelled out for him. A failure of imagination, such was the prevailing opinion, including his own.
“I believe I see,” the boy said slowly. “It is not that it has not been used, but that it has been, and is bound by an older treaty that renders those more recent agreements obsolete. Or at the least, of secondary importance.”
Achenor nodded, proud of his protege, but not showing it overmuch lest overconfidence take root in the boy`s heart. “You have seen truly. Once this secret was lost to all but those who swore to keep it. That the founders of the Circle of Twelve Moons were able to uncover it is…I use the word ‘miracle’ only rarely, do I not? We have inherited this great mystery in an age of cruelty and hate undeserving of its glory. So in your opinion, what are we to do with this knowledge?”
The aspirant did not answer immediately. This was only to be expected, because even the most foolish aspirant who made it this far was never so inept as to spit out the first half-formed thoughts in their head. Achenor waited patiently for many minutes, his eyes closed in meditation. When at last the answer came, he allowed himself a smile, and then intoned the ritual words:
“This eve will see the Twelve Watchers assemble in judgement. As of this moonrise, your old life will be past. Who you were shall be no more, and who you will be shall walk tall and wiser from the circle.”
To his credit, the aspirant did not exclaim in surprise or joy, or faint as some of the weaker did. He merely nodded, brow furrowed in thought. Achenor gave him the customary twelve seconds, one for each of the moons the coven could see reflected in the universe.
“It is improper to have done so before now,” Achenor said, in a far less formal voice. “But I must confess that none are expected to adhere to such a tradition, as I myself did not. Have you considered what your new name is to be?”
The aspirant nodded, the faintest blush on his cheeks. “I fancied to take up the name Naxartes.”
The adept Naxartes kept his eyes to the ground, truly overawed for the first time. What he had seen during his time among the coven was beyond the imagination of most, but humanity was nothing if not resilient, and he had hardened himself to the miraculous and the impossible.
At least, he had believed this to be true, until becoming a witness to the cataclysmic battle whose echoes still rang in his ears. Now he knelt, his body bound with rope and his mouth bound with terror. Not two feet from him, yet a thousand miles distant, stood the monster which had done all this.
There had not been much to the town of Cambury even before the Dark Occupation, yet following the foolish attempt at an insurrection, what was left could barely be described as ruins. The Circle of Twelve Moons had heard of the formenting rebellion, of course, as had almost everybody else out to the neighbouring provinces. Naxartes, known for his skill at oratory, had been dispatched to prevent the slaughter that had just occurred.
A shadow, indistinguishable from any other, floated apart from the smoke-blackened evening. It uttered a hideous joke in Kelevan, the rigid and precise tones giving it away as a hobgoblin. Horrid laughter rose up from several places around Naxartes. A second and more solid shadow emerged, revealing itself a gore-drenched gnoll. This beast bent its head to a bundle of rags it carried, and Naxartes wished he could close his mind to the sight of that tiny pink arm being pulled apart in its jaws.
His captor suddenly placed a hand on his head, stroking it almost absently, as if from a distant master to his least valued hound. Naxartes promptly fell to his face, writhing in the dirt as he grovelled for mercy. He squashed the sense of shame he felt at this debasement, gibbering a prayer to the God of Death himself to spare him, even for just one more day.
“The Withered Pretender cannot save you,” came the inexorable voice from above, a dry and chill voice that conjured images of the night-frosted deserts said to lie beyond the east. “But for The One Above All, such a thing is trivial. Look at me.”
Naxartes could not keep a wail from escaping him. Madness overflowed from the voice, the madness of conviction beyond all reason. His head was forcibly turned upwards, to meet the ravaged face of the one who had spoken a single word and left him helpless to watch the butchering of Cambury. He was transfixed by the indiscriminate malice he saw in the eyes of living metal.
Had he any doubt of identity previously, it was banished now, and he knew for sure who and what had hold of him. The bold, stupid, futile gesture of Cambury had been punished by dreaded band known as The Eye; and it was its ghastly battlemage, Khadufel the Southerner, that held Naxartes spellbound now. The warlock screamed as the compulsion forced its way into his mind, tearing through his thoughts with utter disregard – a violating of his sense of self as cruel as any rape of the body could be.
“Your lack of a familiar is irritating but may be corrected,” Khadufel instructed him. “You will call one forth from the ranks of the devils. Listen to its advice well. I will tell you which power to name in your invocation.”
The imp hovered in the air, reading from a scroll that kept rolling further open without ever lengthening. Naxartes could not recall quite how he had escaped the disaster at Cambury, or why he was so eager to acquire a familiar now of all times. And he was uncertain as to why he was invoking an entity other than the one to which his coven was pledged, less still why this devilish power had answered his ritual call.
Obviously because it recognises the true extent of your power, rose a sandstorm whisper in the darkest recess of his mind. It sees you for what you are. It knows that you have a critical role to play in the realms of mortality.
That whispered chaos troubled Naxartes. Not as much now as it had on his frantic flight from Cambury back to the relative safety of Daven`s Ruin Woods. Almost as soon as he begun the invocation, sending out a bargain into the planes for a familiar to serve him, the desert-dry voice had quieted from urging to conversation. Now, completing the deal with the imp that had manifested itself, the voice was barely audible at all.
It still gave him valuable information, however. It whispered truths that had been so obvious before now that Naxartes had not even considered giving voice to them, but to the Hells with such false modesty! Of course the coven had sent him on that mission. No other was even vaguely qualified, or were too cowardly to risk their own skins. But he had returned with greater strength than he had left with.
Naxartes felt fulfilled, even bolstered, by his failure. His survival had obviously been due to the necessity of his role in a grand future. There was so much that he was capable of, and the rest of the coven would learn to appreciate his genius. They would see how dependant upon him they truly were.
Some will be jealous, he realized suddenly. Envious in their stupidity and weakness. I will have to watch them most carefully. Distract them with toys I throw them from the aspirants, perhaps. Never too many, lest they suspect something, even if by pure chance.
“The agreement is satisfactory,” the imp concluded, pressing its hand to the scroll, which promptly disappeared in a sulphuric puff of smoke as the signature was accepted. “My congratulations and felicitations, master Naxartes. I, the imp Marchosias, am now your familiar. Now, as time is short, we ought begin by converting others of your misguided coven to your own cause.”
Naxartes, scarcely listening to these words, sneered down the length of his nose at the imp. He had not even heard its name, nor would he have cared any longer had he done so. The insolence of the little fiend, to make suggestions to him, its master! It would need to be cured of that presupmtive nature.
“You forget yourself, imp!” he snapped at it, refusing to smile even as it reeled back in shock. “I am the one who gives the orders, and you are the one to obey them. Do not make the mistake of believing yourself my equal!”
The imp almost seemed to glower for a moment, before bowing to him in submission. Naxartes gave no indication that he was pleased by this display. A new thought occurred to him.
“You will, however, have to change your shape. It is very displeasing to me, to say nothing of the looks that others will give me for employing such a repulsive creature. Nothing too handsome however. You must remember your place. Hmm, yes, I think you will do well as a crow. A raven has too much majesty to suit you. As a crow you shall appear henceforth.”
Whilst the early hours of the day welcomed both Aidan and Naxartes, it was a far later hour that saw the rising of last of the three whose fates were now intertwined. Unlike the others, his awakening was a far cruder affair, beginning with a bucket of cold water splashed across his face.
Spluttering, coughing, cursing, he fought his way out of the constricting blankets; and landed bare-buttocked on the spur-heeled boots by the bed. He let out a yelp, quite understandably he felt, that was very nearly inaudible save to dogs and other such beasts. By the time he had recovered his footing, though certainly not his dignity, the manservants had already begun to dress him for the day, ignoring his protests with the blank-eyed ease of hereditary servants the world over.
Few who saw him now would believe the power he held, for his insignia marked him out as the Marquis du Rentes, and short of the petty overseers of places such as Bessel or Fort Rienne, a less notable personage was rare indeed. Yet this man was also closer to the ear of King Milon than any save his wife.
“Milon`s wife, that is, not my wife, I`m not married!” he would exclaim jovially, a salacious wink often following immediately thereafter. “Mind you, I would not turn my nose up at someone looking to fill the position. Or several positions, actually. Have you ever heard of the Rever-”
A resounding slap would usually cut him off at this point as the offended lady, more often than not already married, would lose the last of her patience with the drunk upstart making ridiculous boasts at this oh-so-horribly-dull function. Everyone knew that it was the Most Honorable Chevalier Guillaime Louis Carolus du Marn-Bael who was His Majesty`s spymaster.
Nevertheless, the Marquis du Rentes would repeat his ill-advised jests whenever he was in his cups, and those who had to endure his company did so with heroic fortitude. He was not worth the effort of having him replaced, when a mere hour or so in his company, and a few coppers would earn them the signature they needed. The latter factor was insulting to many of the greater nobles who had to deal with him.
That paltry copper, rather than precious silver or valued gold, was the cost of doing business with the man was irksome. His taste for wine and women of the very lowest sort was well-known. This lack of any refinement whatsoever did him even fewer favors than the rumors that he occasionally performed as might a common minstrel in establishments of poor reputation. The art of bribery simply stagnated in his presence.
On this particular morning, a letter had arrived from Kale City by special messenger. Unusual, but such things happened from time to time, and the Marquis grumbled for only a few hours after being informed of its contents. The physical letter itself had, of course, been opened and read and incinerated by his majordomo much earlier.
The indolent Marquis had only been rudely disturbed when all the preparations had already been made, so as to prevent him from interfering or, as was more likely, absconding entirely. Within a half hour of his awakening, he was unceremoniously bundled into a carriage, bound for Kale City.
About three leagues into the journey, there came a heavy thumping from within and a significantly more personal series of insults hurled at the driver, who paid no attention to the sounds whatsoever. The most recent adjustment to the Marquis` travel plans involved sealing the carriage doors shut behind him, thus preventing any escape from his duties – as had, obviously, happened before.
Why is it always catacombs? the Marquis wondered sourly, stalking into the musty tunnel and taking the first left turn. You never have anything useful in a cheerful, sunlit meadow, do you? You never get a chance to breathe in some air that is NOT full of the grave-dust of however many withered husks of old rich bastards were lumped in together.
As with all the great cities, Kale City had its fair share of hidden geography beneath the surface. Perhaps one of the secret requirements of becoming a great city was that you had the potential to grow downwards as well as out. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Marquis hated this part of his job almost more than any other, and took the next left turn.
The creaking of ancient wood gave him brief pause, as the door badly misplaced in the tunnel ceiling swung open. His shoulder ached in remembered sympathy of the first time he had come this way and forgotten about that hazard. After a few moments, the door swung itself closed again, with a barely audible disappointed gurgling from the other side. The Marquis hissed a spiteful curse at it anyway and continued on, once more choosing the left turn over the right.
Things that looked like rats, but the size of wolfhounds, appeared before him. The torchlight reflected back from a dozen milky and unseeing eyes on each grotesque head. Evil, hungry chittering filled the tunnel. The Marquis gave each one a firm clout on the nose, sending them squealing into impossibly small holes in the walls. At the crossroads beyond, he took his fourth left turn.
He knew if he looked behind him along the path he had just walked, the gloomy stairs leading up into the palace would be there in place of any crossroads. Most of those who had wandered in here, whether by accident or by design, would hesitate in confusion. The Marquis, however, pushed through the disorientation, practice having made perfect long ago, and took another left turn - or was it the first one he taken again?
In this iteration of the dance, he fancied that gravity had shifted around him. His cloak and hair, and sparks from the torch, drifted towards the walls - alternating between the left and the right with each turn he made - and when he cleared his throat, the spittle arced around his head to fall soundlessly into the black void at his back.
Never anything new down here, either, the Marquis noted in disappointment after a while. Not complaining about that, obviously, but one would think the same old rubbish gets a bit tiresome after the first five hundred years. Shows a lack of imagination.
A mummified corpse reached out to him from its recess, where neither had been before, garbling obscenities in a forgotten tongue that predated the realm of Kale itself. The Marquis nodded at it politely, waggled a censorious finger at its foul language, and moved on without a second glance.
When he finally reached his destination, calmly kicking aside the slavering guard-beast that defied any sane description, he took one look at the simple chair that had been left out for him and glared daggers at his host. For some seconds, the other met his eyes with equanimity, before sighing in weary acquiescence. The Marquis sat himself down then, on a plush cushioned throne that had replaced the originally proferred chair.
"This had better be good," he snapped at the other. "If I have to listen to one more complaint about eternal damnation, I will - what did you say?"
His host repeated the statement. The Marquis stared at him in shock, silently contemplating all the worst possibilities that could come of this. Finally, he summed up the situation with his usual degree of verve, eloquence and sophistication:
On his return, the Marquis stood in the great hall, silent and brooding. Several of the servants were unobtrusively present, awaiting instruction. They had not seen their master like this for a very long time, and it frightened them. When the valet, by virtue of his lofty position daring more than others, moved in to take cloak and jacket, the Marquis actually resisted with a firm gesture that sent him scurrying back into line.
At last, the Marquis opened his mouth: "An excursion is required. I will need more than lackeys for this. Gather everyone."
"A thousand pardons, my lord," the majordomo said nervously, after taking a moment to consider the order. "When you say to 'gather everyone', should I assu-"
"EV-ER-Y-ONE!" roared the Marquis, and his servants fled to obey each thundered command that followed, decorum be damned. "You, maid, to the armory and dust off the Promise of Dawn. Footman, have the fletcher see to my arrows. Groom, ready five horses, barded. Page, find me the sommelier. You boy...just find something useful to do."
This is going to be a disaster, he thought to himself, careful to give no indication of this fact. This, of all things; and now, of all times? Well, there is plenty of chaos going on. So unless I miss my guess, she will make her entrance right about...yes, now. Oh I love being right.
Appearing at the top of the stairs at the far end of the hall, looking down at him with an air of detached majesty, was one of the tallest and most beautiful women that had ever graced this estate. Perhaps beautiful was the wrong word, however, for the charms of the body are not always aligned the same to each person. Yet she was commanding. In some way, she seemed more real than her surroundings.
She had a presence about her that overwhelmed lesser sensation, a poise of such confidence as to give a berserker pause, a flash of the eyes - a blue so deep as to be nearly violet - that spoke more than a hundred impassioned monologues. This woman did not walk, but glided from place to place. The apparent simplicity of her dress and jewels only served to amplify the natural intensity that she bore along with her. That her golden hair was heaped in the braided tresses so fashionable in the modern court seemed less a stylistic preference and more an indication of deigning to follow the trends of lesser mortals.
"I had so hoped you would take me out for a romantic evening, yet am I to be left behind, moping in this empty mansion, alone and with no company save for my merciless flights of fancy? Again?"
Her voice rang above the hubbub as might a shattered crystalline glass, demanding notice over all else. Every syllable, exquisitely enunciated, resonated with the subtle cadence of the Great Speech - no mere affectation, but the true timbre of one born to that language.
From high above the Marquis, her faint look of disappointment gave a greater impression of her hidden outrage than any frown or glare might have. A flicker of irritation crossed into view when he refused to rise to the bait. Though he had kept his silence thus far deliberately, knowing what would come of it, his heart still skipped a beat. Out of fear or admiration or lust, however, the Marquis would have been hard-pressed to say.
"Well? Do you have anything to say?"
"I ordered five horses readied, in case you were to join us."
The statuesque woman considered this answer for a moment. Her smile, when it appeared on her full and crimson lips, was not entirely pleasant, and the Marquis felt a shiver run through him. He told himself it was just her raw beauty that caused this feeling, the distant smell of her exotic perfume, the force of her personality that he could feel even when it was not turned towards him. He knew better.
"Oh, and Malevoxa?" She inclined her head, questioning. "You will need the Astral Harmony."
Later, he would wonder if that had been a mistake. At the time, as with so many of the decisions he had made, it seemed perfectly reasonable.
"No, I am certain that Bael is the next town we come to," Isolde asserted confidently. "We took the southern road after Fort Sont - and what a depressing place that was - and before the turning to Selble. Here, Embla, you take a look at this, since apparently I cannot. What does the map say? Bael next, am I right? We can relieve Aidan of his onerous duty there."
Aidan chuckled lightly, acknowledging what was no longer the full truth of things. Out of necessity, he had grown much better at handling the child in a way that did not make either Isolde or Embla try to reclaim it before smacking him for some idiocy or another. After the first week, he had even begun to enjoy taking his turn to carry her. Perhaps the only thing that truly annoyed him now was the fact that nobody had been able, or willing, to name her.
When he had broached the question some nights ago, Brokk and Isolde had both stared at him in shock, citing some archaic superstition common to both races that it was bad luck to name a baby before it was a certain age; whereas Embla, even whilst the baby was happily suckling away, had snorted in derision.
"Had I been the one to kill the mother," she said coldly, and Isolde blanched. "Then it would be my responsibility. I will keep it alive, but beyond that it is not my concern."
That had been three days ago, and the women had only just begun to speak cordially to each other again after the argument which had followed. Now, however, a new silence descended. Embla, slowly taking the parchment from Isolde, was handling it with all the half-concern, half-distaste that Aidan had handled the baby with the first time he had been handed her.
Aidan watched with no small surprise as the map revolved several times in Embla`s hands, only once settling briefly on a correct direction. After a minute or two she gave up with an irritated huff, handing it back to Isolde.
"I cannot make any sense of this writing," she said with a sniff. "It hurts my head to look at it. You people and your love of strange marks. So inconsistent. You put the same thing back to front, or upside down, and say it means the same. Madness."
Aidan shrugged. "Never got around to learning our script? Well, speaking a language tends to be more important than reading it, anyway. Given how well you speak our languages, though, I am very surprised that you are illiterate in them."
"Embla, can I ask a favor?" Brokk suddenly said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Come over here for a few moments. Can you two wait a minute, please? Thank you."
The pair stepped slightly away from the path, and Brokk, taking up a large stick, began to inscribe a series of letters into the earth. When he was finished, he handed the stick over to Embla and asked her to make a copy of the letters beneath them - a strangely rural manner of teaching letters for one so educated - and again she hesitated. Aidan and Isolde watched the slow attempt, both realising immediatley that something here was wrong.
After nearly five minutes of slow, tortured progress, Brokk called time on the lesson and looked at the ravaged earth. No letter was the same as the one above it, not even vaguely. Some were indeed, as Embla had decried, back to front or upside down or even some unholy combination of both.
"Embla, I don`t think you are exactly illiterate, not as such," Brokk said finally. "What you are, without a doubt, is dyslexic."
All three of his friends looked blankly at him. "Oh I forget, that is a specialist term used in some of the higher academic circles. In this case, it means that Embla literally cannot see letters and symbols the way the rest of us do. If I asked you to try again, I have no doubt that each attempt would be wholly different from each other and still incorrect."
"I`m hardly surprised you haven`t heard of the condition. Scholars have only recently admitted it even exists. Up until the last three hundred years or so, stupidity was the given reason for a lack of literacy. And you can blame the first elves to go among the younger races as teachers for that. Their legacy of education and enlightenment bears more than a slight taint of arrogance and presumption."
For an instant, Aidan felt compelled to say something in defense of his ancestors, before memories of his own interactions with full-blooded ranarim came to the fore. They had gone into an isolation of their making out of an arrogant contempt for the rest of their kind, and many of the oldest held humans and other races in even lower estimation. Hence, as had been taught to him from an early age, his own father`s exile to the very boundaries of ranarim territory for actively pursuing romances with humans.
No, there was certainly as much to curse the ancient elves for as there was to laud them for, and only a fool would say that any other race was free of equal bad history. In ages past, hositan had been kept as luxury pets by the dwarven holds. Humans and gnomes had once been nearly as terrible as the dark folk in persecuting those of differing faiths or creeds, even with the threat of terrible monsters and ghastly empires at their very door, and hositan spoke only veiled hints about their own internal strife.
But as Aidan reminded himself, the world had become a much brighter place since then. Despite the best efforts of such horrors as Stor-gris and the Wintervale, goodness flowered in the souls of mortals and elves alike. He knew that no matter what foulness would replace the Wintervale, the power of Good would ultimately triumph over that as well.
Still, when he thought of the risk being posed to the future by his own friend, and of the bleak necessity of fighting Embla and her people, it was hard to stay positive. The only alternative he had come up with so far, which part of him whispered would be no less terrible than letting them rise to power unopposed, would be to subjugate them pre-emptively and teach them the values of the civilized world.
That whisper of sense was growing quieter by the day, he noticed. He was not sure if that was entirely a bad thing, either. More and more, Aidan found himself grimly certain that blood and misery would come of his misjudged friendship. Less and less, he considered this to be an evil fate.