Reaping in Kale
By R. Krommydas
Sometimes, despite everything, he still thought of himself as Little Wulfram. The gnome that had escaped Elder Daven all that time ago, desperately signing himself over to the cause of the so-called New Master, had spent most of the last six months regretting his decision ever more keenly by the day. Especially on clear days like this, seated out under a judging sun, plucking rusted iron from hardened leather and replacing them with new studs.
Part of him argued that he had not known, that he was just a small and insignificant creature with no experience to speak of regarding the outside world. Another part countered that ignorance was no excuse, and that he could have gone his own way afterwards. He had the skills, and the experience for that, to survive in a hostile urban world. He might have fled over the border into Kelerak or Kale.
Instead, he had stayed with the warlock Naxartes, serving as a valet to the cruel man who had slaughtered his original gang leader. How easily he had been lured into that monster`s service, by the grandiose words of a mere familiar! Wulfram had always held a secret love in his heart for bird-song and clear skies, hating and fearing the dark closeness of gang hideouts and tunnels. It had been too easy for his ignorant, inexperienced, overawed spirit to be seduced by the apparent marvel of a magical talking crow.
It named me Crowsherald, Wulfram thought to himself. And I heralded that disguised imp all right. I went before it as a common messenger, warning the poor folk about what was coming. They never believed me and so they chose to fight.
How many nameless hamlets and villages had it been since the start of Naxartes` new quest? Two dozen, three, more? The unfortunate gnome knew he lacked the courage to keep count. Naxartes had commanded they move west after the debacle at Elder Daven, passing the Ruin Woods-- and insisting they keep a curiously wide berth for one so otherwise brazen and confident-- and crossing into Kale in due course.
Wulfram sighed, remembering the first bandit clan to fall into Naxartes` clutches. Against ordinary men, they were a terror, but against a warlock such as Naxartes, they were merely fuel. Literally so, in fact. Only one of the captives had not been sacrificed, so as to tell the tale. The rest were fed to steel and fire, agonised souls screaming across the planes that the warlock`s hellish patron might commune with him.
The local criminals had fallen behind their new master soon enough, just as Wulfram had done before them. One night, the imp Marchosias had disappeared on a personal mission, and had yet to return. In his place, however, was a great skulk of spywings that pledged themselves to Naxartes, chittering praises of the imp that had sent them to find this dread lord.
Wulfram`s thoughts were interrupted by a shadow crossing the sun. He cringed instinctively, whilst simultaneously peering up in hope. But there was nothing there to be seen. A cloudless sky glared down at him and the entrance to the tunnels that Naxartes had ordered his slaves to dig. He tried not to look at that bleak hole, but his eyes kept drifting back to it. What could possibly be Naxartes` objective?
"What could possibly be his objective?" Wulfram asked, half-afraid of getting the answer.
The imp Marchosias, relaxing in his own natural form for a change, shrugged noncommittally. "Why do you not ask our mutual master?"
Wulfram shivered, and the imp chuckled drily at his discomfort. They both knew exactly why Naxartes was not being asked for the answer, and the spywings were still digesting their meal as a result of that query. The warlock seemed changed of late, more cold and cruel than ever before.
Ever since the excavations had started, Naxartes had pushed harder and harder for progress. Towering rages and brutal punishments had followed each setback or delay, from a lack of immediately vulnerable conscripts to a tunnel collapse. The former bandits, now as much enslaved to the warlock as the luckless villagers they brought to him, remained only out of terror of being hunted down.
Three months ago, however, a curious thing had happened. For no apparent reason whatsoever, Naxartes had ordered a change in the direction of the tunnels. The next day had provided a rich vein of silver, which had immediately been plundered and used to purchase legitimate workers from Bael and even Kale City.
The curiously profitable side venture thus continued to fund the actual operation, as the tunnels beneath the Kale Heights grew ever deeper and more elaborate. Once more, progress slowed as the number of workers - both genuine and enslaved - increased beyond the capacity of the existing command structure to administrate. Then a newcomer arrived to oversee things on behalf of Naxartes, and the pace increased.
Gnolls, especially the laughing horror that this one was, tended to have that effect.
One day, Marchosias disappeared into Kelerak. Suddenly, Wulfram was forced into dealing with both Naxartes - which he had gradually become almost used to - and Serious Jaa'hla all by himself. Of the two monsters, the warlock was by far the easier to handle, for at least he looked human on the outside, no matter how twisted his soul had become.
The gnoll was wholly different. Serious Jaa'hla found everything hilarious, including his propensity for random mutilations, and especially the deliberate irony of his name. Wulfram had once seen him spend two hours alternating between an expression of maddened delight and a disappointed frown for no reason other than to disconcert his (literally) captive audience, wondering which of the two was genuine.
Afterwards he had ordered a public whipping. Not of anyone who had been present at the time, but of a number of their family and friends who had been absent. His reason given? "They missed out on the joke." Wulfram recalled that Serious Jaa'hla had not smiled once during that brutal session. In fact, he had borne no expression whatsoever, and that had been even more chilling somehow.
The gnoll had asked him for his opinion on the joke afterwards. Wulfram, who had once argued against a greater devil in defence of Naxartes, back when he still believed in his glorious New Master, was too terrified to tell a lie. Instead he said that he had not seen anything remotely funny about it. Serious Jaa'hla thought about this for some minutes.
"You right," the beast growled at last, sounding disappointed in himself. "Very dull. Much obvious. Will try better next time. I like you. Clean away dull joke. Take this and clean too."
So Wulfram began to serve as an unofficial valet to Serious Jaa'hla as well. It was a remarkably easy job by comparison to being Naxartes` valet, for the warlock was almost as fixated on his appearance as on the excavations. Serious Jaa'hla, however, cared only that the iron studs on his half-mail clothes were polished to a shine.
Inevitably, blood and sweat caused rust. Wulfram, for all the practice he had had, was not able to polish away rust. So he would take up some improvised tools and begin to work at the studs. Carefully, each one that could not be salvaged was eased out from toughened leather - and the gnome pleaded silently to any god who might listen that the leather was from cattle or another herd animal - and replaced.
Tiring work, even painful in the close confines of a tent. He took to sitting outside, at first uncaring of the judgement of the sun and the heavens above. By the time he came to see that he had merely exposed himself - as superstitious a belief as that might be - to the full gaze of the gods his master spurned, it was too late to hide himself away inside again. Serious Jaa'hla saw him as something of a fixture to showcase before the workers, as a demonstration of good and obedient and loyal servitude.
One day, Wulfram happened to pause for a moment, wracked with self-loathing, leaning back in his chair and weeping in his heart to the great god Dekk, whose faith had always seem the most pure to him. At that moment, the shadow crossed the sun for the first time.
Wulfram did not see the shadow every time that it came. Only on the brightest and clearest days could its presence be felt at all, and there were ever fewer of those as summer departed, and the smell of grains drifted in the air. Though most of Kale`s farms were located along the Dalewash, over a hundred miles distant, the first month or so of this season was always heavily scented throughout the land.
The time of reaping had come, and Wulfram wondered at what would be harvested this year.
It makes me feel like wheat or barley, Wulfram realized one day. The shadow is the farmer, watching close to decide when best to cut me down.
This was not a cheerful thought, and he kept it to himself, along with everything else to do with the shadow. So far as he could tell, nobody else knew it was there. Even the spywings, chittering and chirping evilly amongst themselves, gave no indication that the mines were under surveillance not their own.
It was a secret all Wulfram`s own. He liked those, always had, for they had always afforded him the tiniest measure of power over the brutes and bullies who had terrorised him all his life. Staying alive in the underworld of Elder Daven had meant knowing who tell how much of anything to, and Wulfram had become a master at that.
Was there really anything different, anything of consequence, now that he was here with Naxartes and Serious Jaa'hla and the rest? The gnome doubted it very much. His situation was much the same as ever. Mightier figures strode above him like murderous giants in old stories, he scurrying from one side to another in the hope of avoiding being crushed.
The shadow that lingered, it seemed to him, on those days when he sensed it before its path took it past the sun, and let him witness it for but a half-instant longer...now that was a thing that made him feel as though an even greater, more terrible giant was waiting for its chance.
And when that chance came, when the time came to crush the insignificant insects that scurried and scuttled below it, the shadow would do so without hesitation. Wulfram wondered if he was small enough, pathetic enough, to avoid notice from something like that; or if perhaps he would be cut down like everything else that was in the shadow`s way. ♢♢♢♢♢ However mysterious Naxartes` objective might remain, that of Serious Jaa'hla was far more open to all to view, and Wulfram struggled to understand the level of arrogance necessary to devise such a scheme. In truth, to call it a 'scheme' was a misnomer, for that word suggests subtlety and intelligence, a degree of complexity that in this instance was utterly lacking.
"Strong workers in Bael," the gnoll announced to the camp one evening, quite matter-of-factly. "Mining faster with them. I lead you there. We take what we want. No worry for guards. They not know real battle. I kill them if you cannot."
Dejected, but fearing death by soldier less than death by warlock, the former bandits arrayed themselves for a true raid. Wulfram, ordered to attend the meeting by Serious Jaa'hla, was no less horrified than the rest to learn that he was going to be accompanying them.
He struggled to ask the question, struggled even to catch his breath after the announcement drove it from him. Eventually, he managed to voice something that sounded vaguely questioning, and Serious Jaa'hla nodded in perfect understanding, as though Wulfram had not spent the last three minutes looking to be standing on the very precipice of a dead faint.
"You more clever than them," Serious Jaa'hla explained serenely. "To be strong is good, but to be no clever is bad. A boss must be some clever. So I make you lead attack. They listen to you, learn use strength better."
Wulfram, once more feeling himself to be just Little Wulfram, wheezed in terror-struck panic. The sound made Serious Jaa'hla howl with laughter, a bone-wrenching series of high-pitched yips and deep-throated barks that awoke every prey instinct in Wulfram`s body. Gnomes, like the other higher races, may have been created with thought and wisdom already in place, but the gods had apparently left some facets of their earlier and cruder animal works intact.
As the gnoll capered, gibbered, shrieked its incomprehensible hilarity to the deepening evening, Wulfram stared in blank shock. He was transfixed by the spectacle, as easily as might a rabbit be by the dance of the weasel. Eventually, when it was clear that Serious Jaa'hla was not going to stop laughing in the foreseeable future, he crept away. Memories returned to him of his frightful life in Elder Daven, and of the scary stories that would go around of the horrors in the night, and of the monstrous ends of those who disappeared into those hungry mists.
For the first time, Wulfram truly knew what it must mean to be in such a story, and more besides, to be the one that the story was being told about. There could be no doubt that when he led the men out of the hills into Bael, the story would reach an abrupt and painful conclusion, at least for him. As he thought more on this, his mind racing more frantically than a rat caught in a trap, another possibility came to him.
Almost idly, his eyes drifted over to the various crude tools he used in his unhappy work. Wulfram considered if they would be less painful than the implements of torture that would be used on him. The moment any of the men named him as the leader, the Kalais would know that he was nothing more than a jumped-up 'face', sent there in place of the real boss. They would rip him to shreds without letting him die to find out who, and probably carry on after he squealed just to sate their boredom.
His grim thoughts were interrupted by a heavy beating of wings, and a dishevelled crow burst through the flaps of his tent. It halted when it saw Wulfram, hanging impossibly in mid-air as it did so, and a very clear expression of irritation crossed its avian features as the pair regarded each other.
"Can nobody save the man from his own unparalleled arrogance?" the imp Marchosias asked rhetorically, and flew right back out again in search of their ostensible mutual master.
I don`t know if having him back is good or bad news, Wulfram thought to himself.
When a few minutes later, from the crude hut that was the only actual structure in the camp, serving mainly as Naxartes` own private residence, and only occasionally as headquarters for this operation, he heard an outraged scream, Wulfram knew that Marchosias` return from Kelerak heralded bad news. Somehow, he was utterly unsurprised. Indeed, he was too emotionally drained to muster up any kind of feeling at all.
Tomorrow he would be herded in front of a mismatched assembly of former bandit clans, to lead them into battle against a genuine township of one of the great nations, driven forward by a deranged gnoll to die pointlessly and painfully. Truly his was a bleak fate. ♢♢♢♢♢ "Oh non non NON monsieur, you should 'ave seen it last year!" exclaimed the mayor, in a ludicrously thick Western Kalais accent. "Zey 'ad jugglers and singing fools, and a fine fine wine, not zis...pigswill. Truly, zis is a bleak fête!"
Brokk nodded, struggling to follow the man`s drunken rambling, and utterly failing to interject with anything comprehensible to the others. They had arrived in Bael just as the town was celebrating an important anniversary-- the festivities had been going on for enough days now that nobody was entirely sure what said anniversary was, exactly-- and immediately been swallowed up by the chaos.
Aidan and Embla had nearly disappeared entirely, with the merrymakers dragging them eagerly into whatever nightmare dance was currently being attempted. The fact that both of these were heavily armed, heavily scarred, and heavily annoyed adventurers made no difference to the Baelish.
Brokk only escaped by virtue of his obvious age, and Isolde by virtue of holding the baby, though more than a few bright-eyed youths offered (presumably) salacious comments and gestures. To Brokk`s shock, she even returned a few in true Zelish gutter-slang, and was clearly disappointed that the wizard would not take up her burden for a few hours.
"I am trying to find someone to 'take up the burden' permanently, Isolde!" he scolded her, only for the unrepentant hositan to deliberately turn from him and wriggle suggestively at a fellow halfling reveller.
Sighing deeply, Brokk looked back to the mayor, and resumed trying to break into the conversation. It was, in a sense, humiliating to suffer such repeated failure. He was a Loremaster of the highest rank, a wizard of no small power and intellect, a debater and confidante of the great minds of the world. And here he was, unable to interrupt a simple provincial with a bellyful of cheap wine!
The brief encounter they had been forced to endure on the very outskirts of the town had not improved his mood either. That the local guards were either so apathetic, cowardly, or drunk to intervene when a party of travellers on the road to their town were suddenly attacked by the adjoining bushes boded poorly in general!
Brokk let himself laugh at that thought. How strange had his life become that an attack by plants was no longer a curious or startling thing? Indeed, the entire group had reacted with their own brand of apathy at the sudden vegetative assault. To a certain extent, the encounter had served to remind them of how far above many they stood. Their confidence, following their decisive defeat by and miraculous escape of the lich Ajef the Black, had needed a boost of this sort.
For a precious few seconds, the sight of the plants uprooting themselves and moving to surround them barely registered as something to be concerned about. Then a branch swung out from one larger rose bush, smacking Aidan full in the face and leaving him with a mouthful of old leaves and a number of deep scratches. The paladin, spluttering in surprise, reflexively kicked out and sent the rose bush flying.
"Very angry druid!" Isolde shouted as a group of sunflowers ineffectually tried to bear her to the ground. "Very angry, very overconfident druid somewhere!"
Brokk would swear afterwards the animated plants actually seemed affronted on the druid`s behalf by the insult, though he later admitted it was nothing more than a gut feeling. At that precise moment of apparent hesitation however, he conjured a simple globule of acid and, dismissively, flicked it at the nearest plants. The corrosive ball exploded over them and they collapsed at once.
It was a good sign of how weak the magic animating them truly was. A cantrip such as that would barely have slowed a healthy goblin or kobold. Brokk did have a slight advantage in that experience had strengthened his spells, but to see some of his weakest magic be overwhelming for his opponents...well, it was almost enough to make a man feel sorry for whatever idiot had presumed to attack them. It was strange however, that so many plants could be animated but at the same time be destroyed so easily.
With it being her turn to carry the baby girl, Embla found herself unexpectedly out of the fight. An undersized poplar sapling attempted to rush her. She watched, confused, as the tiny tree collided with her thighs and spun away without leaving so much as a bruise. As the poplar wobbled upright and repeated its futile attempts, her expression only became more and more bewildered.
"Should I be worried about barely feeling this?" she asked.
"No idea, but this is very embarrassing!" answered Aidan, as a huge tangle of ivy engulfed him and began to drag him away, absorbing the hits from his warhammer. "I forgot that this stuff is perennial. Simple blunt force trauma is not going to be enough for once."
The ivy shoved itself into his mouth, cutting off further remarks. It continued to drag him away, to where a ragged figure emerged from hiding. Brokk`s mind could work extremely quickly when it needed to. In an instant, he deduced why they were facing a horde of extreme weaklings. The druid was ancient and once had been mighty, but some illness had ravaged him.
His naked body was emaciated to the point of starvation, grotesquely jaundiced and sore-marked. There was a curious madness in his eyes, as though he could see things that were not there, or perhaps that had once been - an advanced senility had stripped clean his mind. He had remained able to animate the vast numbers of plants that his decades of experience would have allowed, but could no longer infuse them with a strength to match.
Whatever echo of his thoughts remained, however, were clearly of a malevolent nature. In his right hand was held a great thorn, tip stained black with the blood of whatever unfortunate beasts he had been able to call to him for sacrifice. The blighted druid, at last, had turned his attentions to other prey.
This time, Brokk did not bother with a petty spell. There were times for such things, and this was not one of them. Instead, knowing full well that it was wholly unnecessary here, he called upon one of his newest and mightiest powers. Seven rays of brilliance shot from his hand in a growing cone of elemental oblivion.
He was pleased to see that the devastation it wreaked just barely avoided Aidan, instead cutting straight past him to strike the druid with full force. Cleansing fire erupted amid the crackling roar of lightning. The tree behind which the druid had hidden seemed to melt away under a poisonous cloud. A scalding frost settled on the ground. The druid simply exploded into steaming chunks that turned to stone and dissolved into dust.
Instantly, the plants returned to their natural unmoving state. After cutting Aidan loose, and hastily stamping out the remaining flames - being keenly aware of the danger of starting a wildfire - the group returned to the road and the vacant, uncaring Baelish guards further along it. The whole encounter had lasted just under a minute.
"Thank you Brokk," Aidan said slowly, picking bits of ivy from his teeth. "Again, actually. My lord Heshtail? Noble God of Mercy, your humble servant has a humble request. Could we try to avoid making this sort of thing a habit?"
It was of course, for theirs was not a simple life, not the first time this had happened.
It was still too early in their relationship for them to know this, but perhaps ever-cynical Isolde (at least in this regard) had an inkling of the truth, that it was scarcely worth them planning out anything and hoping for it to remain mostly intact. The first break from the plan had happened all of an hour ago, when the immense Erunian warrior-woman had disappeared into the evening, her stomach grumbling far more comprehensibly than her mouth.
Isolde Amero Ballussia, only daughter of Droggo Marie Ballussia, the beloved and deadly Mamacita of Zel City, was not in the least bit intimidated by the sky-blocking Embla Aslaug. The relatively tiny halfling had almost screamed her displeasure at the departure, which left a major gap in their watch rota, all to satisfy a hunger that the last pitiful village had not been able to assuage. However, the half-elven paladin that ostensibly led this group was a different matter, and he was one that Isolde no longer believed she could handle so easily.
He had a conviction supporting his actions that was simply disturbing. Fresh out of the hidden temples that carried on the faltering resistance, the man was a fanatic whose existence now was dedicated to the overthrowing of the Dark Occupation and the downfall of the Wintervale. At times he even chastised his companions for breaking laws that had not been in existence for centuries, and his opinion of Isolde in particular was extremely low - as a collaborator, to say nothing of being drow-trained, she practically exemplified everything that could be wrong about a person. And, much to her irritation, he made little attempt to keep this opinion to himself.
So when the night came alive with a writhing forest of vines and branches, seizing the startled Aidan and dragging him off into the black before he could make any sound whatsoever, Isolde was sorely tempted to let the animated shrubbery just have him, and good riddance to the self-righteous proselytizer.
Those plants probably want revenge for all the sticks broken being shoved up his taut, muscular backside, she thought idly.
Then she remembered the irreplaceable pairing that he had stored away on his person. Confiscated, she reminded herself with some displeasure, from her own possessions after a few too many drinks. To almost anyone else, the simple matched dice would be of no value or interest, but Isolde and Aidan both knew now what they were.
Perhaps the half-elf would eventually seek to return them to the hositan people. Perhaps not. To Isolde, it was truly not worth the risk. Even the thought of a non-halfling holding them made her skin crawl. At the very least, if she made the effort and saved the paladin, she could have the dice nearby, ready for her to steal back at the right time. If she left him to his fate, however, who knew where those invaluable relics might end up?
A little regretfully, she nudged the strange dwarven wizard that was the fourth member of this curious party, drawing him out of his obsessive - and quite frightening, in a way - study of some mystic stone tablet. She had yet to see exactly what this Brokk could do in a real battle, and since one of those was likely imminent, now was as good a time as any to get this old man up and moving and proving himself of use.
Too many people forget that this too is part of our duties, Thorek Halfman mused, preparing his silvered sickle with mistletoe sap. Even the majority of our own kindred will not acknowledge that blood must be shed in sacrifice to the natural powers of hunger and fear and fury.
Upon the altar of bone, lashed to it by powerful vines that constricted all the tighter with each heroic and futile attempt to break free, writhed a half-elf with an overly inflated opinion of himself and his value to that insufferable prig of a deity Heshtail the Merciful. Thorek`s companion in this bleak endeavour, Levanni the Unblooded, was murmuring dark prayers in readiness for the sacrifice.
Even to Thorek, who had seen many deformities and oddities in nature, Levanni was a strange one. Though haggard and ancient after all these years, she still seemed far more akin to the girl she had never quite grown out of being, at least in body. Her mind had grown though, blossomed in fact, under Thorek`s guidance, once he had wiped out those who had tormented her for being a victim of ill chance.
Even so, Levanni was more bitter and hateful than many a full hag, and the chance to kill a man was one she never passed up. Thorek knew that she only refrained from killing him in his sleep because, to her twisted eyes and to many others, he was no true man himself. The torturers of the Wintervale had seen to his own defilement years ago, for eunuch slaves, cut in just the right way, were ever popular among more farsighted dark elven matriarchs.
In Levanni`s case, her village had been an especially primitive one, regressing to earlier and simpler beliefs after the horror of the Dark Conquest, and it had not reacted well when it seemed as though she would never become a woman, as they saw it. What sin might she have committed, what evil might she have let into her life, so did the elders ask - and then came the far worse question, of what use she could possibly be to them?
Thorek Halfman had enjoyed delivering death to those monsters. He paused in his remembrance, wondering at the sudden silence that seemed to have fallen. Levanni, with all her inventive and justified sadism towards the males they had caught over the years, had never once refrained from her litany of hate - and even mutes, the pair had learned, could make some sounds - but there was only an unsettling quiet behind him now. Curious as to what was happening, he turned around to look.
The reason for this was, to his mind, almost inexplicable. A halfling had apparently dropped out of the night sky, and even now was hovering over his stricken friend. Her knives were dripping, one a sliver of metal perfectly lanced through the main artery, the other a hideous serration that looked distinctly drow in design.
As soon as she realised she was spotted, the murderous halfling let go of her miniature rapier. No longer held up by the sorcerous power keeping his killer aloft, the corpse she had made of Levanni simply slumped to the ground. Thorek broke out of his shock a moment too late, and the airborne monster vanished into the sky again.
The fallen druid began to invoke his power, or tried to. A shield, or perhaps a shroud, of some arcane kind, seemed to have wrapped itself around him, cutting him off from the true magic that should have been all around. Acting on instinct, he hurled himself to one side, and a ball of flame exploded immediately behind him. Knowing that more would likely follow, Thorek battled to grasp his own magical abilities, but before he could work out how to break free, he heard the whistle of wind as his death descended from above.
A very subdued quartet of adventurers, too newly aligned in goals and interests, circled the evening`s fire. The gradual chatter that had opened up histories and beliefs to each other over the last few weeks did not make any appearance at all. This might have been the first time the four had ever met, thrust together unwillingly and without warning.
"So," Aidan said slowly, saying nothing at all.
"So," echoed Isolde, no less slowly.
An awkward silence hung between them for some time. Brokk, once more lost in his perusal of primordial ciphers, did not notice. Embla, trying not to sulk over having missed everything, polished her sword intensely, and nobody made any effort to escape the crushing silence. Eventually, Aidan sighed heavily, and Isolde fully jumped in surprise at the sudden noise.
"We are on the same side, really. Hard sometimes to remember that. Never had much to do with other people. Family mostly. Then teachers making me into a holy weapon. I...promise...to try harder."
The halfling looked at him askance, ample suspicion for a dozen rogues glittering in her eyes. "Family I can understand. Other people have always been dangerous. Trust was always something for someone else, and they were going to be killed by it. This is new to me. But I, too, promise to try harder."
A truce of sorts was clearly reached. With grave solemnity, paladin and thief shook hands on their complementing oaths. Then Isolde broke, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. The tension immediately left the mismatched pair - though it did not go far, and as such things do, would linger awhile in case it saw a new opportunity.
"All right, back to the main reason we came out all this way. Petty local warlocks causing trouble, was it?"
"That`s the one," Aidan nodded with a smile. "Two more days on the road, then we reach Mavarra. And how bad could that be, anyway?"
Given some of the experiences they had suffered through since, the horrors of Mavarra very nearly seemed a pleasant alternative, but admitting to this was not yet something the friends could do. This evening in Bael especially, trying to arrange a safe adoption of the baby girl, would remind them of an enemy they had encountered and had to let go.
The first they knew of it was when a new shout went up among the revellers, one that carried screams of pain and terror with it. At once, Aidan broke away from the others, warhammer already in hand, and Isolde followed a moment later as soon as she was able to hand over the baby to Brokk - probably the safest place for the infant in the whole town, given the multitude of defensive magics he tried to keep prepared at any given time.
Embla, who had paused in fending off the attentions of the dancers to sample the proffered wine, finished the great draught before accompanying them. The depressing attempt at murder just outside the town walls had left her confused and disappointed, for an actual struggle against an equal or superior foe was an exhilarating experience that came far too rarely for her liking.
A part of her had even enjoyed, or rather appreciated, the contemptuous ease with which Ajef the Black had overcome their attempt to destroy him. Finding an enemy too powerful to defeat, even when pushing herself to the absolute limit of her abilities, let her see exactly where she stood in the world-- and further, where her people stood also. The abominable lich-lord of Dessingrove was a threat that had to be ended.
Having survived an encounter with him gave Embla great insight into what would be needed to actually destroy him or others of similar potency, and passing that information back to the tribes was of paramount importance if they were to take their rightful place in the wider world. The time for that was drawing ever closer, she knew, and at once it was all too soon and not soon enough for her. Everything she had learned on her time away from the isolated realm of the Greatwall Mountains would be carried back and used to enlighten her people, in readiness for the great war to come.
These thoughts, among others, made their way through her mind as she joined in the defence of Bael. She allowed herself to be distracted by them, for there seemed to be no true threat to her or her friends. A considerable number of bandits, most of them clearly unwilling to fight properly but too scared of their leader to refuse, had chosen to try staging a raid on the exhausted and drunken township. Even Isolde was trading honest blows with these so-called fighters, her feet planted firmly on the ground, instead of carrying her in all directions around her enemies.
Embla sighed as another of the bandits, wild-eyed at the sight of her, nevertheless charged with suicidal courage, and was duly struck down. Fear could make a creature, whether man or beast, a hundred times more deadly than courage; but only if it was handed to them in moderate quantities, or alongside the desperation of being cornered. Whatever talent for war these men might have possessed normally had been almost driven from them by their fear. It made the battle boring. For now she even refrained from picking up one of their weapons to replace her own, lost in the battle at Dessingrove.
Then she saw a gnome towards the back of the attack, issuing orders and encouragements as he thought necessary. Every thought in her head disappeared in a flash of rage, to be momentarily replaced with a memory of being led into treacherous ambush during their stay in Elder Daven. Though it mattered not, even the name came back to her now, and she bellowed it wrathfully, drowning out all the hubbub and the chaos about her.
If he was being totally honest with himself, he had not been expecting miracles. However, this particularly poor showing suggested to Wulfram that 'his' men had had most of their capable members culled in previous raids. The braver fighters rushed ahead and got themselves killed early, leaving only the dregs behind. Against undernourished farmers and foragers in the hinterlands, this still left them at a hideous advantage.
This charge against actual trained guards, however, was nothing but suicidal, no matter how drained they were after days of feasting and drinking. Although, on further inspection, there did seem to be a strange knot of resistance closer to the main body of civilians. Wulfram peered suspiciously into the melee, trying to work out exactly what was going on. For a few seconds, he was fully visible to that battle.
There could be no mistaking that voice, and once more he was truly Little Wulfram, less than nothing, the merest wisp of Davonian mist fading before the dawn. One of his men shrieked in terror as he was hurled upwards, revealing the unmistakable bronze-fleshed monster that had been the true muscle of the adventurers back in Elder Daven, held in hidden reserve until the last.
Now that he knew was he was looking at, Little Wulfram understood that his men were already doomed. A flash of lantern-light against metal gave away the position of the elf-blood and his great hammer. Thunderous sweeps of that weapon broke bones and formations with equal ease. Just beyond no doubt was that hateful hositan, a true gutter runner of the Occupied Kingdoms and no petty crook scrounging for scraps, who had outplayed him at his own game. Of their wizard there was no sign, and this only made Little Wulfram fear all the more.
There was nothing else for it, so he turned and fled. Or at least, he tried to. Before he had gone four paces, he collided with a solid mass of clinking iron that sparkled as if set with polished stars. Little Wulfram looked up, knowing what he would see, unsure of which fate would be more preferable, convinced his end was nigh.
"You running already?" Serious Jaa'hla asked, giggling to himself. "Is very early in night yet."
Little Wulfram squawked a wordless warning, pointing frantically back at the approaching figures that were still easily carving their way through the few remaining bandits. The gnoll observed them with eerie dispassion as they closed the distance, his near-endless laughter halted. Once more, Little Wulfram felt an even greater fear settle upon him with this calm.
"Find spot to watch," Serious Jaa'hla ordered at last. "I show you how is done."
Feeling himself gently pushed aside, the gnome fought against his own mortal terror to regain control of his legs. His eyes were beyond any hope of salvation, and stayed locked on the two sides advancing on each other, but his legs might yet be reclaimed. If so, they might just have a chance at carrying him back to the mine. He would doubtless be tracked, but that meant the adventurers would run into the slaves and the few remaining guards.
With any luck, they would be too distracted freeing those unfortunates and ensuring their return to safe haven to keep pursuing Little Wulfram until he was already far enough gone to be beyond their reach. He wondered if perhaps he could ensure this with the right set of words...just as those, perhaps, which would suggest to Naxartes and Marchosias that the adventurers were actually coming after them.
Knowing those two, he tried to convince himself. They will take such offense that they will not attempt escape. One side or the other will be destroyed then. That will halve the number of enemies I have. Yes, that will be perfect. Or at least, my only real hope.
By chance, Aidan was a little ahead of the others, and so came face to face with the gnoll first. He hesitated, for this was a creature that seemed far too calm for its species, and that was something that instinctively made him wary. The gnoll was watching him curiously, sizing him up, and Aidan understood that this was a far more capable foe than any they had faced this evening. Then the beast began to speak, using the Dark Speech favoured by only the foulest creatures in the world.
"You fight well for a pinkskin, pup of the swan-blood. I will toast your skill from your own beating heart, and carve words of praise upon your bones. Your death shall serve to make me stronger and more gloried. For that, one warrior to another, I give you thanks."
To its surprise, Aidan answered in the same foul language: "Cease your vomitous prattling, runt, and scurry back to your den. Your hide is not deserving of being my trophy. I would not feed your liver to your own whelps. You are beneath even the filth that drips from an offal-cart. Fire would extinguish itself rather than cook your meat!"
The gnoll cocked its head, considering Aidan more closely, and then laughed. "You are but a pup! Your insults are weak and need much practice. Alas, you shall not get that time. Come then. Come and die."
Before the paladin could move however, Embla hurtled past him, still roaring the name of the gnome, seized by berserker fury. She had taken up a sword from one of the dead raiders, for her own had broken against an animated suit of armour back in Dessingrove. A human`s weapon in her hand seemed strangely small and ineffective, but Aidan knew that it would kill no less effectively for all that.
Instead, he watched in shock as the gnoll seized the descending sword in one hand, the blade barely digging into its flesh, and clenched hard enough to shatter the weapon. Even in the midst of her rage, Embla had presence of mind enough to look startled as well, but true to form, she pressed the attack unarmed anyway, reaching out to grab the gnoll and crush it to death.
The gnoll responded instantly, locking fingers with her, palm to palm. Muscles swelled as the pair strained against each other, the faintest wisps of steam rising from both panting mouths as the pressure built. Suddenly, the gnoll pushed its head forward, snapping furiously, and its fangs immediately met flesh-- as Embla brought her own head forward with equal speed, ramming it into the gnoll`s muzzle.
A fang broke off in her forehead, and the beast blinked slowly, almost dazed by the impact. With an enormous effort, the gnoll threw Embla aside, sending her crashing through a window, and roared a challenge at Aidan once more. That was when a dagger flew through the air, whistling shrilly, and planted itself to the hilt in its right eye.
With a pained whimper, the gnoll staggered, sank to one knee, and clutched at the grievous wound with a shaking hand. Then it fell horribly still, bowed over its knee, dark blood dripping slowly from its head. Isolde stepped up next to Aidan, twirling another dagger happily at her own skill. Then she stopped, and along with her friends, stared in disbelief at the beast she had just slain - except for the way that it was rising to its feet once more, laughing horribly.
"That is no ordinary gnoll," Aidan said, entirely unnecessarily. "That can only be a Fang of Yeenoghu!"
They watched in horror as the gnoll steadied itself, a twisted smile on its face, and plucked the dagger from its ruined eye with only a slight twitch to show that this action was in any way painful. With its remaining eye, it examined the pulped meat clinging to the metal carefully. Slowly, deliberately, it extended a yellow-mottled tongue and licked the blade clean, staring at Isolde all the while.
The beast suddenly leaped straight into the air, twisting around as performing some bizarre dance, then used the dagger to slash at its own flesh. Each cut was met with ecstatic laughter, deep and throaty, as if the pain was something to be cherished. As it cavorted madly, the gnoll began to chant in prayer, the tone unmistakable even if the words themselves were mercifully hidden behind the Dark Speech it used for them.
Rûg-a-rûggi, Vorna'ith, akhi Jaa'hla! Vorna'ith, akhi mi! Vorna'ith! Rûg-a-rûggi, akhi Jaa'hla! Akhi mi!
"Please don`t translate, I can guess well enough," Isolde pleaded, trembling at the ghastly spectacle, and shaken as he was, Aidan kept his mouth shut, wishing he could do the same for his ears, for he understood every terrible word.
And still the gnoll capered, chanted its invocation to the Darkest God, shook its head violently to spray blood all around. Thick droplets seemed to stick in the air, oozing slowly down an invisible wall to form crude arcs around its head - not so connected as to be a full circle, but close enough to suggest the shape. The gnoll gurgled one more laugh, then in crude but comprehensible Kingdom Common spoke its terrible boast:
"I am Jaa'hla. Yeenoghu Gnoll-father not worthy of me. Jaa'hla no Fang of little demon godling! Jaa'hla serve the God of Gods only. Through me One God see you. Bolg-Gatha dead. Others fled. Know now I am all that is The Eye of Vornoth!"
Behind the gnoll Jaa'hla, within the implied circle, the world seemed to stretch and warp. Then the implication blinked and an ageless malevolence peered out through the thinning of reality. A fragment of divine awareness observed the scene, taking in more than mere mortal eyes could, witnessing its champion as requested. Absolute hatred of life, utterly impersonal, demanded submission and death from those it beheld.
Aidan felt his spine straighten as he defensively opened himself up to the energies of the planes, touching upon that holy spark that made him a true paladin of Heshtail. The urges to kneel, accept death, flee in terror, or even kill himself - all these faded away to background noise of no importance. He was a servant of the Lord of Mercy, and had pledged his soul to defend the world against such evil as was staring at him now, even if damnation and torment was his only reward for this.
Either side of him, far more impressively given their lack of such binding oaths, he could sense Brokk and Isolde standing firm also. His dwarven friend had clearly found someone willing to hold the baby and had joined them at last. A small blueish orb was in his hand, trying to freeze the air itself solid. Isolde had two of her most vicious daggers ready, and they glimmered with faint light as Brokk hastily infused them with a hint of magical power.
And then came Embla, clawing past the broken glass to join the others. Even with her face twisted into a mask of howling rage, her friends recognized a strangely indignant outrage lurking beneath. There was no time to question her about this however, even if they had been inclined to, for the gnoll`s ritual had come to an end. Now was time only for desperate battle and the promise of death fulfilled.
The gnoll moved first, charging Aidan with a gleeful and bloodthirsty howl. Brokk threw the frozen orb, but the gnoll dodged to one side at the last, so that it flew past harmlessly - as indeed, it would have done anyway. The beast`s remaining eye widened as it beheld Isolde sliding into position, the genuine article leaving her hands at high speed towards its face, and Brokk`s simple but effective illusion dissipating into nothing.
An explosion of frost, jagged ice shards, blizzard winds, followed the collision. As it subsided, a bronze fist blew a hole through the fogged air to collide with the gnoll`s midsection, and a great steel hammerhead descended right next to it with killing intent. To their surprise, Aidan and Embla watched the gnoll slip aside from the paladin`s would-be-deadly strike, and shrug off Embla`s own mighty punch with barely a gasp. It responded with a sweeping kick that knocked all the breath from Aidan`s lungs, even through his sturdy elf-mail.
Embla pulled him to safety just before a follow-up kick caved in his skull. In the space she left behind, a field of night-black tentacles erupted from the street as Brokk conjured some of his more esoteric powers, and began to lash out in an obvious attempt to restrain and constrict. The gnoll merely ripped the tentacles free as they coiled about it, no more slowed by them than a giant would be, and after some seconds, Brokk allowed the magic to fade.
Instantly, the gnoll darted back. Isolde and her daggers scraped along the ground immediately after. Horrific jaws snapped down, but only onto thin air. The painful memory of this tactic failing against a fiend-cursed dire wolf was still fresh in her mind, and Isolde had no wish to lose more of her blades and gain another concussion. Even as she missed her target, she had gone into a defensive roll, swiftly flexing her back against the earth to thrust herself into a powerful evasive leap. Mid-air, she twisted just enough to let fly with the thinner dagger she held, the one that was better balanced for such an attempt.
The gnoll yelped rewardingly. Before any advantage could be pressed, it plucked the dagger from its impaled wrist, freeing the trapped muscles. That same wounded hand then closed around the head of Aidan`s warhammer as it was jabbed forward, and forced both it and the half-elf back through sheer brute force. Aidan stretched out a hand as he fell back, and braced himself just as Embla already had-- for in the wordless way of the most experienced warriors, they had planned for this.
His outstretched arm was gripped tightly by Embla. With a bestial roar to drown out any that the gnoll had managed, she spun Aidan all the way around her, using the same momentum the gnoll had provided by throwing him away to send him hurtling forward at even greater speed. For a second or two, his feet were fully off the ground. Then both he and his warhammer impacted the gnoll with colossal force.
The pair fell and began to wrestle. On his own, Aidan would have lost at once, and had been almost immediately turned onto his back, his head on the verge on being beaten into the ground. The gnoll was simply too strong, drawing strength from its dark patron, still watching through that twisted gore-hole in the world. But Aidan was not alone. Arcane syllables grew in the air, and Aidan grew with them. Suddenly twice his former size, he seized the gnoll by the throat and began to squeeze, doing his best to shield his face from its furious retaliation with just the one hand.
Embla was there moments later and began to grapple with its arms. Her knee was pressed into the small of its back as she heaved on its arms. The beast struggled to get a footing either side of Aidan`s enlarged chest and push off, but Isolde was already there, slicing at its ankles, piercing its thighs and the backs of its knees. Her remaining dagger however, though briefly empowered by Brokk`s magic, was still being partially turned by the unholy flesh of this horror.
There was a creaking sound from somewhere within the gnoll as its bones resisted. Its eye bulged, not out of pain, but out of hate and wrath. Frothing at the mouth, fighting for every breath, it began to weaken. The three battling hand-to-hand pressed their advantage, and Brokk focused on maintaining Aidan`s increased might.
They might have guessed that victory would not be so easily come by. With sudden force, the gnoll literally burst free of its armor, splitting the iron into pieces with a single mighty flex of its muscles, having husbanded its fading strength perfectly. A piece of shrapnel slashed into Aidan`s cheek, cutting right through into his mouth, and he released his hold on the gnoll`s throat instinctively, grabbing at the piece before it started to choke him.
A single breath was all it needed to regain its full strength, and Embla felt herself pulled forward, slamming into its back so unexpectedly that she could not react in time when its head was flung back. More blood sprayed as her nose was broken, and the fang already embedded in her forehead was driven even deeper to scratch the skull itself. She fell away, stunned, and Isolde was already gone, for the gnoll had leaped clear and was far too dangerous to face by herself. It stood before them once more, chest heaving with deep ragged breaths, stripped of armor and padding, drenched in blood both its own and theirs.
"You very good..." the gnoll gasped delightedly, its, his, arousal now horribly obvious. "I, Jaa`hla, honor you. Glory to Vornoth!"
At that moment, a horn-call sounded. It was as nothing any there had heard before. The echoes called back from every wall, growing ever more clear and pure with each resounding cry, as if a master herald stood atop each building and thundered out that one glorious call. Despite their multitude, the notes did not clash, but mingled with each other into a single ineffable harmony.
The world brightened. It was no mere seeming, no mere illusion, but a tangible reality. Lanterns shone brighter, fires blazed higher, muted shades became brilliant hues. Weariness fled from muscle and mind, and all worries melted to fancy. The stars speared their light into the earth. The warped curve of reality that served as a dark god`s eye simply winked out. This was more than a blessing of light and hope, carried here by those strange five who now rode into Bael.
This was the Promise of Dawn.
As the horn-call continued to sound, the gnoll shook in silence, at once pained and enraged by the purity of the rising note. He rumbled a dire threat at the approach of the nearest of the riders, an elf-lord tall and pale, with moonsong on his tongue and starlight on his skin.
The rider all but ignored him, instead dancing his horse around to meet up with Aidan and the others. He raised his hand to them in salutation, bare save for a simple golden band on his finger, and at once a wave of healing light washed over the four. Aidan felt the tear in his cheek close up, and the myriad wounds Embla had sustained vanished entirely.
Only now did the glorious horn-call start to fade as its sounder no longer held it, and others came into view. One, a golden-haired woman incongruously dressed in an extremely revealing sequined ball gown, strummed a curious harp and began to sing. Each syllable fell like an executioner`s axe, but one aimed at fear and doubt, that now banished themselves from the thoughts of all who heard the song. Aidan recognized the power as kindred to his own, as all true paladins were guarded against the fear that their most terrible enemies could evoke, yet this was aimed without instead of within.
A dome of protective light covered them now as the elf-rider invoked another magic, and the gnoll narrowed his eyes against the holy aura. So blinded, he saw not the twinned arrows that came towards him then, flying true from a mighty bow in the hands of a steel-eyed warrior who, despite his gilded mail and feathered cloak, had the look of the wilds about him, and at whose side hung the war horn that spoke of the coming of dawn. His arrows pierced into the gnoll`s back, staggering the beast and spilling dark blood.
Before the gnoll recovered himself, a whooping halfling rode up to continue the attack - and on no mere pony, but a full-grown warhorse with neither saddle nor bridle. Impossibly balanced upon the stallion`s bare back, the ferocious hositan slashed at his prey with a silvered cavalry saber that flayed open the forehead to the bone, but cut into the empty socket that Isolde had already claimed.
The added injury was not enough to fell the beast. Instead, the exquisite pain seemed only to refresh, and the gnoll howled monstrous laughter as he resumed his terrible assault. Bloodied claws pressed themselves against the dome of light, ignoring the searing radiance that bit into them, cutting through the holy ward as though it was the thinnest silk, and tearing into the ample target that was the enlarged Aidan. There was no pain, for it was carried away from him by the bardic song, and Aidan freely swung his warhammer against the beast that dared continue its attack. He was rewarded with the sound of splintering bone as steel met flesh.
Embla and Isolde followed up at once, taking heart from their strange new allies. The Erunian tore at the gnoll with her bare hands in a berserk fury, keeping it off-balance as much as possible, whilst Isolde leaped onto the back of the circling warhorse with the hositan on its back. She spoke a single questioning word that was almost snatched away by the roar of battle, but the other understood and laughed a dire laugh, swinging his horse back into the fray. As the stallion whirled about, its two riders hacked and stabbed at the gnoll below them whenever Embla provided an opportunity.
For nearly half a minute, the chaotic dance continued unabated, until at last the gnoll sank again to a knee - and thrust itself forward at the last, seizing the warhorse by haunch and throat, hurling it up and away. Swiftly, the elf-lord turned his healing magic towards them, inadvertently lowering the barrier and allowing the gnoll to press his charge against an exposed Brokk. Immediately, the wizard abandoned his earlier concentration, and lashed out with a bolt of flame that set the gnoll ablaze. Aidan, already back to his regular size, fell back from the fires reflexively, but before his very eyes they simply died.
The gnoll laughed madly. A faint whistling warned of more arrows, and though his arm was broken, it still rose to meet the pair in mid-flight, letting them sink into the otherwise-useless limb that now served as a very effective shield. As the gnoll lowered his battered arm, still laughing, a faint glimmer of sanity seemed to appear in his eyes. Then the last of the riders, bounding free of horseback, thundered into battle.
Aidan could clearly see that the figure was clad entirely in blackened plate decorated with many spiny protrusions, and a helmet from which two immense horns curled in defiance to the heavens. Each hand held a battle-axe marked with glowing red runes, and behind lashed a thick tail-- a tail? Yes, indeed, and one tipped with the spiked ball of a morning star no less! Now Aidan saw too that the helmet was not itself horned, and as a result knew this fighter for what it was.
Tiefling and gnoll collided, and fell away from each other, and then met again in furious melee. Everyone else kept their distance. Axes fell and met stone as their target dodged aside, and even the thick plate mail groaned its protest as it fought off the jaws and claws of the gnoll. Around and around the pair went, hacking at each other in a frenzy that even Embla had perhaps never achieved.
Still the gnoll laughed, and for a moment he seemed somehow less solid, less real than the surrounding township. A shadow spread across his battered face, then across his whole body. With a terrible cry, the tiefling made one final desperate lunge - and collapsed to the empty street, shrieking and kicking at the air like a child having a tantrum.
Despite everything, the gnoll had had one last trick to its name and vanished into a self-made darkness, escaping from them all. The four adventurers regrouped and waited together for their peculiar allies to do the same, and approach them for the expected formalities. Deciding how to proceed could come after.
"Our thanks, we were hard-pressed and your help was perfectly timed," Aidan said sincerely, sparing a worried glance for the continuing tantrum of the tiefling, who was still too angry and too close for anyone`s comfort.
"Oh, Tybalt will calm down eventually," the lordly-looking ranger sighed. "Provided we leave him be for a time. I guess you'll want some explanation and introductions and so on, yes? Well, I suppose I can begin. I am the Marquis du Rentes, as well as several other titles. But by all means, call me Gareth."