Reaping in Kale
By R. Krommydas
The emptiness of the campsite was unsettling. Isolde had dismounted, daggers at the ready, arguing that she could not do her job as a scout from horseback; and Embla shadowed her with surprising skill, eager to crush and maim. Towards the rear, Brokk ground his teeth irritably, as Malevoxa continued to shroud their presence by playing a wailing harmony that, had he any hair left, would have made each one stand on end in protest.
𝅘𝅥𝅲It`s oh so quiet
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Hush hush
𝅘𝅥𝅲 It`s oh so still
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Hush hush
𝅘𝅥𝅲 We`re all alone now
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Hush hush
The wizard could feel a strong magical aura nearby, pulsing erratically and therefore not of bardic origin, in response to something equally potent, yet curiously muted by comparison, which had started up at the same moment. Normally, a magical aura was obscured to the senses unless they were themselves magically enhanced, but exceptions to this rule did exist. It was doubtlessly affecting everyone in different ways, perhaps with them even knowing.
Of the others, Arlgand alone seemed aware of the auras too - if Malevoxa felt them, she gave no hint - and looked decidedly jittery as his head whirled about in search of some clue. The great spellcasters strained against the limitations of the flesh. If they could only pinpoint the location of at least one aura, the rest would fall into place readily enough. They might be able to interpret the sensations and deduce the nature of the magic involved.
Before they managed anything however, the sun went black, plunging the campsite into shadow. In complete silence, a colossal dome of stone ribs speared heavenwards, thick webs lashing them together such that not a single ray could pierce through to the ground below. A thunderous flapping of tiny leathery wings sounded out from all around, and the drumming of dead feet upon the earth from one particular direction, as the ambush laid within this trap was sprung.
The spell itself was a peculiar variation upon the classic walls of stone that a decent conjurer could manifest, and one which could only have be done with the aid of an immortal. The sheer size of the prison indicated to Brokk just what heights of power had been reached by this unseen benefactor, whereas the webs informed Arlgand of their most likely source among the Barathean fiends. Not that either fact was of any use.
What was of use was the foreknowledge of their enemies and the famed weakness of the vampire. Neither Brokk nor Arlgand hesitated as the world around them was plunged into darkness. Twin flowers of light bloomed from them, one from the elf lord`s own skin to illuminate the immediate area and the onrush of the vampire spawn, whilst another hurtled upwards to become a miniature sun - revealing the swirling masses of spywings that chittered and flittered and spewed embers excitedly.
In the glow, a terrified little face peeking out of a tunnel in the hillside was just barely visible. Tall, broad, elegant, savage; such were the figures that slid out into the world around the pale gnomish visage that struggled to believe in what it was seeing. The true vampires were not remotely put off by the artificial lights conjured by priest and wizard, instead urging their spawn onwards to weaken them before moving in for the kill themselves. In their ignorance of what they were facing however, they had failed to account for one particular eventuality.
"WULFRAM!" bellowed Embla as she caught sight of the gnome, who immediately soiled himself and fled, dripping, down the tunnel.
The massed spawn were trampled underneath her as Embla pursued, a single wordless cry of fury on her lips. One less-than-intelligent vampire, offended by her audacity, moved to block her path. For all its unnatural strength, it would have had more chance against the sun. Without breaking stride, the immense berserker of Eruna picked the monster up by the throat with one hand, tore its head off with the other, and crushed it underfoot.
The fallen body thrashed madly before dissolving into mist, slinking back to its crypt to try and recover some measure of corporeality. Its fellows, amused by the humiliating defeat, laughed amongst themselves as they parted to allow the berserker passage. What did they care, after all? The mere smell of life had awoken them when it was still near to the surface. Its actual presence, and the arousing spray of blood that would surely follow those two meals into the Dreaming Pit, would do the same for even the heaviest of sleepers.
Malevoxa saw the vampire spawn converging and a solitary gentle sigh escaped her: 𝅘𝅥𝅲 And so peaceful until...
A delicate finger changed the string it was about to strum. The nail scraped along its length, drawing a musical shriek that no harp could produce. Others followed in a rasping cacophony and rose to the fevered pitch of a mob. The maestra`s once-crystalline voice shifted into harsh gravel so as to match. The first un-notes sounded out, briefly halting the startled vampire spawn in their tracks, and though it was not aimed at him, Brokk felt the violence of the swelling bardic magic when the slightest trickle of blood seeped from his ear in response to the new verses.
𝅘𝅥𝅲Hear well oh firestarters, you weak-willed firedancers
𝅘𝅥𝅲I`m the bitch you hate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Vengeance infatuated!
𝅘𝅥𝅲 I`m the pain you taste
𝅘𝅥𝅲 By death intoxicated!
𝅘𝅥𝅲 I`m the end you face
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Freedom incarcerated!
𝅘𝅥𝅲Come hence oh firestarters, you reckless fireprancers
𝅘𝅥𝅲Your wounds made self-inflicted
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Your mind with dreams infected
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Your soul to fear addicted
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Your life to mine connected
𝅘𝅥𝅲Submit oh firestarters, you twisted firedancers < /p>
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Control your fate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Screams instigate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Hells saturate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Your will negate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 All hope ablate
𝅘𝅥𝅲 The Sins berate
𝅘𝅥𝅲Obey oh firestarters, you collared fireprancers
𝅘𝅥𝅲AND BURN BURN BURN BURN BURN
The nearest black-eyed spawn, overcoming its curious hesitation, reached up to seize Malevoxa`s legs and pluck her from the saddle. The nearest spywings descended upon it in a hail of flame and teeth, immolating the unfortunate undead. All around, the webs binding the pillars of stone and blocking out the sun were similarly being consumed, and several spywings had begun to attack each other or themselves in the frenzy. Given her earlier disinterest in personal involvement, Malevoxa had truly changed her tune.
"Hey, are you listening? I said, she has certainly changed-"
"I heard you the first time, Isolde!" Hamling shouted back, dodging a spurt of fire from one of the beasts. "What she did not change enough was their targets! She just told them to burn, so they will do that to everything they see now, still including us!"
Isolde sniffed, flicked her daggers upwards, sidestepped the falling corpses, retrieved the blades from the impaled spywings, and continued to repeat the action with similar results. "Well I thought it was funny."
"Damnations, woman, now is not the time for levity," said Hamling, stabbing furiously at an overconfident spawn that saw only a light snack on horseback.
"Now is the perfect time!" Isolde countered instantly. "Keeping your spirits up is just as important as keeping your shield up, if you are bad at fighting, or not getting hit at all."
Hamling finally felled the spawn attacking him, and frantically swung his sabre at another trying to get between the two of them. "Then be good at fighting and pay attention to the enemy before they start to gang up on us!"
"Don`t give them ideas!" said Isolde, spotting the offending opponent. "Why would you do something like that?"
The pair of halflings danced past each other, one rolling through the legs of the other`s very startled warhorse to hamstring the spawn as it struggled to retain its balance. When it crumpled to the ground, surprised at being unable to move its legs, Isolde finished up by plunging her daggers into its eyes. Even the undead could not withstand this, and when it fell this time, it stayed down and stayed still.
Irritated by the increasing numbers of dying spawn, the vampires directed their wills towards the hositan. As the smallest, weakest members of this entourage, they would surely only be slightly difficult to bring down. Protecting them would also drain the energies of the more capable others, as for some reason this type of meal never had the brains to sacrifice any of their number. Isolde glanced around to see a far greater number of spawn converging on them than she was happy with.
"You just had to offer them tactical advice, didn`t you? Oh, come on, nine at once is cheating! Why can the villains cheat and we can`t? I blame you for this, Hamling, and you will pay it for later!"
A dozen pillars of holy fire descended around them, blinding in their intensity, yet somehow not actually causing any harm to the halflings caught within their incendiary brilliance. When they dissipated mere moments later, several large piles of ash were the only indicators of anything, living or undead, having been approaching them. Breathing heavily from the exertion of such a potent spell, Arlgand still had enough left in him to glare at them severely.
"Is there any chance you two can play at being married when we not under vampire attack?"
"Go boil your head in a bucket of fish," the hositan shouted back at the same time, and continued to bicker as they resumed cutting apart anything they came across.
The horses had been left behind some minutes past, even their endurance pushed to a dangerous extreme by the urgency of the situation. Aidan and Gareth now relied upon their own endurance to carry them the rest of the way into the hills, guided by the towering pillars of stone that had suddenly grown up out of nothing and been sealed up by heavy black webs in an instant. That this was visible even from their distance was a terrifying indicator of just what they were up against.
Their mood did not improve when they actually reached their destination. Aidan began to strike at the webbing futilely, whilst Gareth searched for a way through and found nothing. In desperation, the paladin placed his bare hands against the webs and tried to channel whatever holy power he could against them, as he had against other things which had defied the heavens - even an angel that had once been a part of them and, in his own way, served them still - but to no avail. What made it was worse the silence from within, making it impossible to determine what was going on, or had gone on, behind the barrier.
For some seconds, they fell back in dismay, beginning to feel the first touches of unreasoning panic. As a paladin, Aidan shrugged off the fear almost immediately, or rather put it to one side and ignored it without a second thought, with even greater ease than breathing. Gareth, lacking the spiritual fortification literally granted by the gods to their more martial champions, nonetheless steeled himself with remarkable haste.
"I only hunted regular beasts when I had to," said Gareth. "You have more experience with real monsters. How fast do you think that one can catch up?"
Aidan shrugged, looking over his shoulder in worry. "Using some kind of dark sorcery to reach us on the way here? Keeping up with the horses for nearly three minutes before falling behind? How in the Hells should I know?"
"Terrible answer because it was honest," Gareth retorted at once. "You should be trying to comfort me with sweet little lies. I know you`re not a real priest but you`re the next best thing I`ve got, and I don`t think it sets a good precedent for religious types to tell the truth all the time, or even at all, actually. It might give people the wrong idea. They really ought to take a lesson from us ordinary folk and lie through their teeth about everything, especially impeding death and what we get afterwards."
The paladin made a sound that was halfway between a choke and a whine, and rubbed his temples in frustration. This was like speaking to Isolde after she`d had a few too many Davenian ales - and she always insisted on calling them by the national 'Davenian' instead of the Kelevan-proper 'Davonian', as if to further stress her contempt for them over those brews of Kelerak - and to have the same arguments here at this particular time was maddening. How, and why exactly, Aidan always found himself in the middle of this kind of debate was totally beyond his capacity to explain, but he suspected that it was some malevolent force trying to interfere in Heshtail`s plans for him. Given the frequency of the arguments, only increasing since leaving the Occupied Kingdoms and spending more time with Isolde, he suspected that force was probably the hositan deity Bunga playing some kind of trick on him.
Except that Isolde always spoke of Bunga differently, Aidan remembered now. Bunga Proudfoot is a jokester and a merrymaker, true, but he is not malicious about it. That was always Bucca Tunnelly, who never thought about the consequences of his pranks. Cost him once too, according to her, cost him dearly indeed.
A deranged thought took hold of him then. He reached into his pockets, feeling for the one that had been sewn shut several times. The stitches were still there, not that this was an indicator of anything, and he immediately pulled them loose, reaching inside with trembling fingers. Aidan withdrew the contents and let them sit on his open palm. The unremarkable pair of dice, six-sided, dirty white with black markings, might have been any pair found anywhere in the civilized world. But they were not just any pair. Aidan swallowed hard, breathed a silent prayer to Heshtail and thence to the hositan gods, and rolled the dice from one hand to the other, hoping for some kind of divine intervention. The dice fell straight onto snake-eyes, as if weighted. Nothing happened. Aidan thought himself lucky despite that. He was not hositan, after all.
Trying to ignore Aidan`s obvious descent into insanity, Gareth lifted his head to the skies, as if hoping for inspiration from the Heavens. He blinked, then furrowed his brow, peering intensely at the clouds. For a moment there, Gareth had thought he had seen something, but that was so unlikely and so incredibly lucky if he had seen it that he secretly knew he was imagining things. Then he clapped his hands over his eyes, shielding them as the sun brightened in a sky-spanning flare that concentrated suddenly into a single point. When Gareth peered through his fingers again, he smiled. A tiny dark speck hovered far above them, growing bigger and bigger with each passing second. He almost fancied he could hear the wind whistling past the descending saviour, wreathed in solar fury.
"Well, Thranton be praised," Gareth said with complete sincerity. "Help has come." He put the Promise of Dawn to his lips and sounded the horn, just as the falling spear of light struck the top of the stone prison.
She caught with him as he fell into the furthest depths, falling against a particularly ornate crypt near the ultimate centre, babbling incoherencies about confusion and servitude and unfaithful masters. He was crying as he beat himself around the head, his own self-loathing doing nearly as much damage as Embla intended. The torch in his hand narrowly set his hair on fire, but she plucked that from his grip and set it down with almost motherly care. It would not do for his justice to be delivered by anything other than Embla herself. The gnome looked at up her and in his eyes was reflected the understanding that this was his final hour. He seemed almost relieved.
Howling triumphantly, Embla seized the gnome under each arm, recalling the promise she had made to her friends back in Elder Daven so very long ago. Her thumbs pressed into his chest, piercing the soft meat with ease and hooking beneath the clavicle. When she tensed herself, the bone shattered and finally the treacherous gnome began to scream, in his agony calling to some god-figure Dekk to send the birds to save him. Embla did not care for the ridiculous superstitions of these heathens, gnome or otherwise.
Of course, there was also no reason to prolong this any more than she absolutely had to. More battle awaited elsewhere, and even in her rage, Embla thought she had seen something that needed further investigation. She pulled her arms apart with all the strength she could muster. The pieces dropped to her feet, red warmth trickling down her. With this mission accomplished, Embla now turned to inspect what she had thought she had seen. That which stood there in silence stared back at her, looking almost interested at the brutality. By the style of its clothing, Embla understood that her suspicion was correct, for there was no other creature like this in the world.
"I know of you," growled Embla at the ebon-skinned vampiress, deliberately and insolently speaking in the crude language of the desert tribes. "The one who crawled north in fear of what awaited her in the sands. You have lived overlong under a false and twisted name, Kaorennyia, 'She of Purity'. Now I kill you too."
With impossible speed, the vampiress appeared next to her, only then vanishing from where she had stood. Not even Isolde`s reactions would have been swift enough to defend against that, and Embla only felt the blow that opened her stomach after it crushed her through the dislodged cover into the ornate crypt. Under most circumstances, this would be an acceptable death, by her standards. The only downside was that her people would lose all the information she had gathered about these foreign lands. Now that was unacceptable. Shaking the descending fog from her eyes, pushing a loop of intestine back inside, Embla started to heave herself back up.
Her right hand automatically closed around a small piece of metal, feeling almost like a tiny sword hilt (though if it was such a thing, doubtless it was of a reasonable size for the smaller races of human and elf) which had been laid to rest with the unmoving occupant of this crypt. The dying berserker dismissed the curious green flash that seemed to leap between flesh and metal, or the flurries of light that waged war on each other as her arm trembled unnaturally, even for one who was dying. The pain faded away and Embla knew this was the worst sign of all.
Still, there was only a heaviness in her right hand, as if her old blade was there again, not long broken against the ensorcelled armor of the lich Ajef the Black. In fact, the heaviness seemed to be exceeding that of her lost weapon, as if adapting itself to her greater strength and skill. Despite the weight, she felt nothing but a serene comfort at the feel of it. It was meant to be there. That was all that mattered here at the end. She placed her left hand on her belly, ready to hold her guts in, and felt no wound.
Why hello there, said a cheerful voice in her head. Would you like to slaughter somebody today?
Embla looked down at the silver sword that glowed greenly in her hand. The sword grew larger and heavier still. Embla looked up at the ancient queen of blood who had nearly killed her. The sword-edges shimmered into vicious hooks that flowed up one side and down the other in a constant rending wave. Embla smiled the Risarvinni smile.
Vampires today then, the positively chirpy voice continued merrily. We want some teeth for this. Oh, what fun we shall have! That one first, is it?
Lady Kyrren the Angelscourge, but four generations removed from Cutalak himself, shook her head and fled for her unlife.
Arlgand felt the merging of the auras into one, parching his throat and chilling his skin at once. A practised scan of the battlefield told him at once what had happened, for a very particular member of the group was missing. Horrified at the implications, his eyes sought out Brokk`s, and saw only confusion therein. Arlgand understood then that the warning they had been given, to keep Embla and whatever fey enchantment lingered on her away from anything overtly magical, had completely passed Brokk by.
There was no time to bring the dwarf up to speed on this matter, however, for the attack was still being pressed against them all. The halflings were holding their own well, even without overt magical support, though naturally both Arlgand and Brokk were hurling some of their most devastating spells at the oncoming vampire spawn. Tybalt had lunged into battle against the vampire lords themselves, his enruned axes wreaking havoc against the surprised monsters, who had not expected to suddenly be up against the former blades of a cambion.
Malevoxa was at the heart of a spywing whirlwind that was tearing itself apart as readily as anything else that dared to draw near, and still she sung as if to the Hells themselves. To his horror, Arlgand saw that the harp was actually playing her. Blood poured from her flashing fingers and the harp plucked at its own strings with it, distorting the notes still further.
This was the final and most extreme stage of the curse, intended to slay both the musician and the entire audience. He and Gareth had hoped to end this before this condition was reached - Malevoxa, the elf lord realised, must not have been resisting it nearly so much as she could, and indeed had done in the past. In the newcomers, Brokk most especially, she sensed peers and rivals. In her unconscious mind, already succumbing to the lure of the Astral Harmony, the maestra yearned to outdo them, to gain their approval and admiration.
Arlgand trembled as she reached a new and cataclysmic crescendo, her enslaved spywings adding their bestial voices to her own, intensifying the performance. All around them, illuminated by the fires still searing through the binding webs, the stone pillars began to groan, then creak, then crack. Entire pieces crumbled loose as Malevoxa`s symphony of destruction climaxed.
A tiny ray of sun peeked through. It was followed by a searing bolt of pure light, eating away at the summoned stone and incinerating the remaining webs in a flash. A dark shape, silhouetted against the glow, hung in the air for a moment, recovering from the effort of drawing upon so much holy power. Arlgand could not help but cheer, even though there yet remained much shadow to protect the undead from the cleansing sun. A pure note that could only be from the Promise of Dawn resonated along with it.
In a flash, all of people, Gareth and Aidan burst into the melee, arrows flying and hammer swinging. In seconds they broke through the cordon of vampire spawn. One of the true vampires audibly growled, even over the sound of the battle, and began to move in to deal with this personally. That was when Gareth noticed Embla`s absence and Tybalt`s considerable distance from the rest of the group.
"Did we split the party again!?" he shrieked hysterically, before seizing Aidan by the collar and shaking him like a dog with a rat. "How do you people live like this?"
With everything going on, Arlgand began to mutter to himself about just what else could possibly happen next. Had he been more superstitious about this sort of thing, he would have kept quiet. Though he could not know it, but below them, Embla was pursuing the ancient vampiress Kyrren back to the surface and calling out the name of the one whose death she most longed for.
Behind her, unseen, the oldest crypts of the Dreaming Pit were shivering as the sleepers awoke at long last, and crawled wearily from their tombs. Last of all, slowest of all, but by no means the least of all, was the one who had laid down there with the same sword that now hungered in Embla`s hand and thoughts. It was a new world, far removed from the old...
The average person would never call the desert cold. It would never even occur to them to use that word as a descriptor of the endless sandy wastes. The average person was an idiot. As Tanarus turns his fiery countenance from the world, permitting Sulis and her star-children their time to shine, the very concept of heat fled from the Cen-Cenla like a beaten dog.
Temperature was irrelevant to this wanderer. Unliving flesh did not fear night`s chill, but welcomed it. The day was a time for resting in shadow, alone but for the memories. Some of those, if allowed to fester, would become nightmares in due course. The vampire did not permit this, instead lancing the pestilent boils of her thoughts each dawn before she slept. Somehow, she found the strength to keep going.
By rights, she should already be truly dead. Her humanity and innocence had been stolen away many years past. Her old faith claimed that her soul had been lost when she gave it up to become the monster, and thus have the strength to slay the elder beast which had so tormented her. Yet even at her lowest, she could not bring herself to end it all, perhaps doubting what once she had believed in so completely. Perhaps there was something for which she was destined - and this night, as she walked the sands far from home, she wondered if perhaps she had found it at last.
A girl-child, perhaps no older than six or seven, lay huddled and motionless in the lee of the dune. Her clothes were mere rags, torn up in a desperate attempt to shield her head from the sun. Almost a good idea, yet she had not thought of the terrible cold that night would bring. Exposed as she was, she would have succumbed in minutes.
The vampire inspected her with predatory instinct. Lean, but fair-muscled, used to few meals and long hours. Dark skin like the night sky, already weathered by wind and rain. A nomad child from even further south then, a daughter of hunters. Surprising to see one of them this far north, relatively speaking, but it was not unreasonable to imagine a hunt gone wrong, a pursuit of a wounded but wily animal leading them into the desert to die, a child lost in a sudden sand-squall.
She knelt down, brushing the wonderfully thick hair from the dark girl`s face. Life was still hiding deep inside the frozen little body. She could smell it, hear it. A simple cut and she would even be able to taste it. The thought was tempting. She had not fed in some days, and that had been a paltry meal indeed.
Light on the sands, from a distant oasis, caught her eye instead. Gently, she picked the child up and held her close. No warmth passed between them. That would come from the fireside and the herbal expertise of whatever nomad tribe had built it. Walking that distance, however, would not save the child`s fragile life. Instead, she floated into the air and sped over the desert as swiftly as a plunging hawk.
Kaorennyia danced less dutifully around the fire than she ought, swaying her hips just a little too enthusiastically. Several disapproving murmurs came from the women, and even some of the men. Not, thankfully, the most important of them, who did not even pretend to watch his actual bride. The other dancers, sensing the way things were going, stepped up their efforts to appear appropriate and not distract from the wedding.
It only meant even more attention on her, and an outstretched leg made her dress dangerously revealing, parting along the slit she had carefully prepared earlier. A small hand, so pale as to be bone-white, suddenly seized her arm with inhuman strength and dragged her from the circle. The groom looked disappointed, but his tongue flicked out to wet his lips in consideration of the sensuous dancer. He could afford another concubine, after all, and he was certainly of a status to deserve as many as humanly possible.
A more hostile encounter was already taking place away from the fire. Kaorennyia, rubbing her bruising arm in pain, tried not to start screaming immediately at the pale girl, unlike anyone else among the Turuk tribes, that had grabbed her. History had shown this was worse than useless, and brought punishment. Not painful but humiliating, meant to humble and teach.
"I didn`t choose this stupid name," Kaorennyia said sulkily at last. "What they think of as pure, I think of as boring. I`m better than them. I`m not the stupid and dull Kaorennyia they think I am, that they want me to be."
The pale girl nodded as if in agreement. "And just who, pray tell, do you think he is?"
"An old and ugly but rich man who can take me away from here," Kaorennyia answered immediately. "I can`t stand these people any more. I`ve listened in on the married women talking, I know what to do to make him notice me, and keep noticing me just long enough for me to steal his camels and leave on my own. You wouldn`t understand."
The pale girl laughed softly in Kaorennyia`s face. "Of course not. What would I possibly know of the hungers of men? I am sure whatever you do will please him greatly and dull his senses. Though you will be competing against the rest of his harem, most of whom were tutored in little but the exciting and delighting of their future husband...which I am certain you considered before setting down this road."
Kaorennyia hesitated momentarily. The pale girl smiled at her, showing far too many teeth. It was an unsubtle reminder of the secret they shared, for the Turuk would not tolerate the truth. Over a decade had passed since the two arrived at the oasis encampment, the one insensate and dying, the other binding the startled tribes-folk to her will with a hypnotic imperative. In that time, Kaorennyia alone had been exempted from vampiric domination, and not once had it been explained why. Until, as it turned out, this moment.
"I was once you," came the surprising revelation. "Small and lost and alone. I refused to die. So, when I found you on the duneside, still alive only through your innate will to survive, I could not drink you or leave you behind. I had to stay afterwards too, drawn back by your stubbornness each time I was tempted to leave. Now, you too wish to leave, and are willing to debase yourself to do so."
"My darling Kaorennyia, I`ve watched you grow by choice into the woman I was forced into becoming. If anyone in this land understands you, I am she. Once it was said the soul can die whilst the body endures. I used to think I was just a husk, a body that moved without knowing it was dead. I was wrong, as what you`ll let be done to you is wrong. If you truly wish to leave, there is another way - a way I would provide for you. For all the things I`ve been in my life, a mother is not one of them."
It needed no thought. Kaorennyia nodded, reaching out to her salvation. The two embraced. As the fangs pierced her throat, Kaorennyia did have a brief moment of doubt. It was washed away in a flood of ecstasy as her blood, her life, was drunk from her. Carried along with the flow was all that it meant to be pure and good.
Too late, she saw that it had been a mistake. Kaorennyia was no longer Kaorennyia, if indeed she ever had been. The fledgling vampire had awoken from the stupor quickly, bright-eyed and unusually claiming a lack of thirst. With disarming sincerity, Kaorennyia had pleaded that she must go to her foster family and bid them farewell, and also make amends to the rest of the tribe for their turbulent history.
For all the claims of lost innocence, some yet remained. The same naivety, which had let in her own sire to her long-forgotten village, yet lingered in her. Only after the screams began did she start to suspect the truth, and exhausted by the draining passing on of vampirism, it took her some minutes to return to the encampment.
Nobody had been left alive, from the wisest elder to the smallest infant. The monster which had fallen upon them had done so ingeniously, picking off the clerics and warriors first, then taking her time with the remainder. He who would have had her as concubine had been left until last, made to watch as his new bride was carved and drunk before him. The last and most piteous of the screams had been his, for he did not die swiftly or sane.
She came across what had been Kaorennyia, naked and covered in viscera, lapping at the man`s heart with an expression of almost orgasmic bliss. The remains of other meals were strewn about like so much discarded waste. For the older vampire, it was a scene straight out of her memories, when her own sire had ravaged her family, and stolen her away as a pet.
"How could you do this?" she breathed in horror. "How could you lie to me so, Kaorennyia?"
"That is not my name, mother dearest," the unrepentant monster had hissed back. "You took that illusion from me. You changed me so that I see the truth of me. I am Kyrren! I am the drinker of the desert. I am all that these cattle feared from our kind and more. So, what is it to be, mother? Will you kill me now for disappointing you? Have I been a bad girl and deserve punishment? You dared to punish me before now. Do so again."
"I ought to," came the reply. "But if I try now, you will survive me. And you know that, don`t you? You always knew that I`d be too tired to win against you. How long have you planned this, daughter?"
Kaorennyia - no, Kyrren, she was now - merely grinned back at her. The answer was obvious. This had been a scheme many years in the making. For too many of those, she had continued to see Kyrren as the little lost girl she had saved from freezing to death, where long ago she could not have saved herself. The woman that Kyrren truly was, colder than any desert night, had been hidden to her sight.
"They used to mock me too, you know," she said to Kyrren sadly. "Ironic titles for my childish foolishness. But it is only now that I believe I deserved that mockery. Because of me, because I saved you, made you...these people are-"
"Glorious food!" Kyrren interrupted with a gargle, emptying the rest of the heart into her mouth. "They were nothing but food before, and they are serving me perfectly as food now. I took what I needed from you. Careful that`s all I take. Get from my sight, oh Good-wife, you gift from the gods! You earned those titles true enough by making me! I am the destiny you were spared for, and nothing else!"
She truly was tired. Kyrren`s contempt only wearied her more, such that she feared she might never feel rested again. The desert was no longer a place of refuge for her, where for a time she had even been able to sleep without her memories intruding. She had no choice but leave the monster daughter behind to her abominable feasting. Only nightmares would greet her now.
It was time to return to the ancient lands. To confront her past. To make peace, such as she could, with it. To abandon the waking world that had brought her so much misery, bury herself in some lightless pit beneath the earth and dream.
Isolde was screaming, dancing a delighted jig. Never had she believed to witness the ancient pact between earth and sky actually be respected. Such a thing was a tale of the lost days before the Dark Occupation, when the shires still bustled with life. Yet here in Kale, the displaced of the sky-lords and the ground-dwellers had miraculously come together again.
And more than even this, Isolde realized. Surging overhead through the rays of sunlight streaming between the shattered stones, was no mere ally out of history, but a legend to the hositan even in the Occupied Kingdoms - the reddish coloring alone gave the identity away. Hamling had implied certain knowledge during their talks, but here was the undeniable proof of it.
"Call out his name," Hamling urged and Isolde obliged: "Rote Kampfflieger! "
The aarakockra banked sharply, feathers bursting from his wings and yet falling like spears upon the vampire spawn below. They writhed and twisted with each piercing impact, tiny flames sprouting from the wounds, and fell back in dismay. Not one remained as the bird-man alighted before the halflings. As chaos raged about them, the trio stood in respectful stillness, acknowledging the thousands of years of cooperation between their races.
Slowly, in awe, Isolde made the traditional salute - fist over heart, a promise of aid even unto death - and swayed on her feet when the aarakockra returned it. Now the Dreaming Pit disgorged the oldest of the vampires that had slept within, bursting through the ground in their haste to reach the surface, and she dropped to her knees then. Not because the supernatural terror they evoked, but because of the new shadows that appeared to combat them.
They came in whites, and grays, and browns, and all shades and patterns of each. As requested, the eyries of the bird-men followed the Red Captain to war. They did not balk at their enemy, though many would inevitably fall in the battle ahead. These were the vanguard of the aarakockra, who had long been prepared to sacrifice themselves should the Dreaming Pit ever open.
The last to emerge from the Dreaming Pit, running out of the actual dug tunnel, were an ebon-skinned vampiress who seemed nearly panicked, hotly pursued by Embla wielding a gargantuan sword even larger than her last. But it was not actually the vampire that Embla was interested in. She still spoke a name in challenge, daring its owner to appear and face her wrath.
From the darkness around one of the least damaged stone pillars, a horrible laugh began to sound. The gnoll Jaa'hla stepped out of nothing. He was still unarmed, bereft of armor or sanity, and utterly terrifying to behold. Embla cocked her head, as if listening to someone whispering in her ear, and began to laugh. It was the same laugh that had echoed through the desecrated catacombs of long-ago Mavarra as she savaged the Flayer with his own scourge.
"Come to me," she said in her own language, though Jaa'hla understood the meaning, and rushed at her eagerly. "Come to the Mother of Ruin. This day I end you."
And on the other side of the melee, Gareth finally stopped shaking a very confused Aidan when a hook-nosed vampire lord, aristocratic in bearing and dress, approached with murderous intent, a Kalais dancing sword in his hand. Gareth instantly responded to the terrifying threat in the only way that was reasonable.
"Why hello there, Comte! So good to see you again after all these years. You know, your disappearance was the talk of the capital for weeks. Now now, why don`t you put that away and let`s talk as the equals we are. It really is the only gentlemanly thing to do. Uh, Comte, don`t look at me that way. There is no quarrel between us, but indeed the unspoken nobility of a comradeship."
The vampire lord snarled and moved in, lunging with killing intent. Gareth`s own epee barely managed to knock the blade aside, and he stumbled back. Immediately he was on the defensive, laying about him furiously with the sword in his left and the whip in his right.
"After all, you loved your wife...and I loved your wife, on average twice nightly three eves a week for seven months but that`s not really relevant to this reunion and oh gods you`re so damned fast! Is what your wife complained about you to me. So I chastened her not to talk with her mouth full."
Serious Jaa'hla, for the first time since he was a cub, found himself fighting for his life. It was glorious beyond his expectation. Even the loss of his eye in the first encounter had been an exciting anomaly. It would grow back eventually, of course, once he had proven himself to Almighty Vorna'ith, earning redemption for his lapse back at Bael. In the meantime, however, there was pain and blood and screaming and not just from his foe, who was smiling in a way that he found most alluring indeed.
Her immense sword made a harsh grinding sound as its teeth whirled about, like some rusted derro contraption of pulleys and levers. Automatically he had blocked the initial strike, not thinking of where the weapon had come from. His hand had been split open to the wrist at once. A greenish glow lashed out at the wound, trying to force its way in deeper, but he had pulled back and severed the connection.
That too was unexpected. Nothing like that had been spoken of by the warlock, or any of his previous sources. Serious Jaa'hla did not mind so much. Losing a hand so completely was an inconvenience, certainly, but not a debilitating one by any stretch of the imagination. The gnoll was gifted resilience beyond any mortal creature, and many an immortal one. Even the agony thrashing in his arm was an invigoration rather than a detriment.
They clashed again, as brutally as before. Annoyingly, despite ripping open his enemy in several places, the rents in her flesh were simply closing up again each time the sword bit into him. A war of attrition, usually, was something he could still win, but Serious Jaa'hla remembered now the provenance of that weapon, and knew such a tactic was futile.
Cutalak the Constant, a visionary and necromancer of the highest calibre, and the first of all vampires, had commissioned it for his ill-fated southern crusade. The weapon itself hailed from the derro forgecity Tumodan beneath distant Cadocia, whilst its enchantments had been bestowed by the combined efforts of devil and demon from across the Hells. All those involved in the manufacture of the sword had given their lives in the process, mostly unwillingly.
Ravana Jaduraja, the rakshasa sorcerer-king who had claimed the blade, plucking it from his own body and striking Cutalak down, had then fallen to it when one of Cutalak`s vampiric descendants stole it back. That vampire had in turn been slain by his own progeny wielding it against him. The sword positively delighted in slaughtering immortals - and it was thus almost a relief to Serious Jaa'hla that he was not immortal.
Still, he was quite confused by the severity of his mounting injuries. Even the most magical of blades should struggle to pierce his flesh. The odd exception existed, when random chance allowed - for Vorna'ith enjoyed testing his chosen in such ways - but for him to be so wounded so consistently was actually beginning to unnerve him.
A suspicion flickered into life, far in the back of his mind. He tried to quash it, for no good would come of such thinking. Yet when he evaded one wild slice from the sword, dodging right into a mighty punch from his foe that broke four of his ribs and punctured a lung, Serious Jaa'hla knew that he had no choice to accept the truth. It was not so much the sword, but the one who wielded it that was ignoring his resistance to damage.
She had advanced to a cold, tranquil rage; beyond the usual bellowing frenzy of the typical berserker. Her smile was far too broad, jaws stretching wide in a way that was almost snake-like. Her eyes, ice-blue, were shot through with a silvery starburst, and gazed at him unblinking throughout their duel. Clearly she had marked him for death, and her transcendent fury - a divine gift of her own, perhaps, from the Pretender Grlaarshh - was such that it suppressed even his own blessing of resilience from Vorna'ith. Serious Jaa'hla thought he had never seen someone so beautiful in their lethality.
He continued to think that as they met again for the final time. He fought as never before, reaching beyond his past glories to the heights of myth itself, so that surely nothing living could match him. His opponent responded in kind. A shining silver pain, threaded with a fey green, blossomed in his impaled guts. Serious Jaa'hla fancied he heard the sword whisper to him in appreciation of the soft meats it was obliterating.
With his awesome but fading strength, he leaned forward and closed his jaws around her face. The skull beneath began to bend and crack under the pressure. Then his body fell away from the neck down and his fangs ripped from the rich flesh, already closing as his life was stolen to repair the injuries. His final moments left him with the image of a copper-skinned giantess smiling at the butchered carcass he had become, and the hope that she would consider him worthy enough to eat and claim his strength for her own.
It was a respectable gnoll custom.
He had retreated until his back was right up against one of the crumbling stone pillars. The vampire lord continued to press forward, his sword piercing Gareth`s left shoulder and crippling his ability to duel with it. As the pain rose, the rest of the battle shrank away, though he could still feel the earth shaking beneath Embla`s frenzied struggle with the gnoll, and high-pitched aarakockran cries that presaged colossal blasts of thunder - even Malevoxa had once grudgingly claimed respect for the Red Captain`s esoteric command of the magical arts. This fight, however, had him completely outclassed. There was only one thing for it.
"Last words, last words, last words!" he yelled hastily, breathing a sigh of relief as the vampire lord glared at him, but complied anyway, knowing that the man had no choice but to die here. "Just before you kill me, Comte, I feel as though I should confess one last thing..."
There came a flash of steel as the dancing sword leapt from one side to another. The vampire lord saw his blade fall away, elegantly turned by his adversary striking from a new angle. With three quick swipes, a gnome-style runic "R" was carved into the vampire`s cheek, before the sword retreated and advanced again under a frantic attempt to block a fourth blow to the face. That would be his last mistake.
The vampire lord looked down in horrified confusion at the sword pierced through his unbeating heart, perfectly slipped through the ribs. Gareth smiled, then thrust the epee in to the very hilt, pushing his transfixed enemy back into sunlight. At once, it began to burn, flames bursting through the skin as the unholy blood boiled and erupted in dark geysers. The eyes were the last to be consumed, still staring down uncomprehendingly at the ordinary-seeming blade that bound it to stillness.
It was an exceedingly specific enchantment on his sword, a druidic gift from the Red Captain that Arlgand and Hamling had managed to negotiate, but it ensured that any vampire pierced by the blade would be paralysed for just a few seconds, long enough to be helpless against more permanent solutions to their existence. Sunlight was the cleanest of them, but so very difficult to procure in most engagements.
"I am not left-handed," confirmed the irrepressible victor as he retrieved his sword. "Alors, Le Renard c`est triomphante, comme toujours! "
Now why was nobody helping me? he thought to himself, looking around. Oh. Oh that`s why.
All around him, eyes both living and undead were drawn to an ebon-skinned vampiress. Even the other elder vampires struggled to look away from that compelling gaze, covering their faces so that even if they turned back to her, she would not be able to dominate them. The spywings, their fragile minds torn between Malevoxa`s control and this all-consuming stare, had simply crumpled to the ground, dead in an instant - Malevoxa herself was enthralled to the harp, blood pouring from her eyes as she vocalised a wordless, self-destructive aria.
Of those caught by the vampiress` stare, Tybalt and Embla alone seemed to have some measure of resistance, however ineffective it might be. The tiefling was helplessly slamming his axes against his armor, jolting his thoughts back to reality for a brief moment or two before nearly succumbing again. Embla was gibbering angrily in a dozen languages to her sword, fighting with it as it tried to pull away from her throat. Gareth began a slow, stumbling walk towards the vampiress.
All around, the vampire spawn walked into the patches of sunlight, immolating themselves without a sound. Aarakockra clustered in horror around their Red Captain, sealed within a barrier of thorny vines that held their wings and shielded their eyes - the Red Captain himself had directed the vines to pin him to the earth through his hands and feet, bright blood dripping, and the agony distracting him from dismissing the spell which kept him from obeying the vampiress` will.
Gareth stood directly before the vampiress, her eyes boring into his with commands. This was a monster used to being obeyed by everything. It therefore came as quite a shock when the mortal blew an impudent raspberry and slammed his sword into her chest. Reflecting on his regrettably long history with vampires and his acquired, wonderfully helpful immunity to their hypnotic powers, he eloquently stated his case to her:
"Piss off, leech!"
Gareth spun on his heel, delivering a mighty kick to the stricken vampiress, then another, and another, and finally a fourth that drove her fully from the darkness into the light. He blinked at the result, struggling to believe what he was seeing. In defiance of all natural and unnatural law, she continued to stand there, spitting hatred at him. With great effort, a hand was moving up to pluck his epee from her heart.
Not one shadow lay protectively across her, but also not one wisp of smoke wound up from her dark flesh. For against Lady Kyrren, even the sun was rendered impotent. Thankfully, it still had some slight effect, for her face was twisted in pain as well as loathing, and Gareth`s sword had no enchantments to prevent a vampire from simply dissolving into mist once the paralysis wore off. Yet at this moment, the awesome powers of the vampire seemed beyond Kyrren`s grasp.
Bathed in sunlight, her hypnotic domination failed. At once, the brief interlude in the chaos was ended. The aarakockra burst into flight again, carrying their exhausted but stalwart Red Captain to safety. Arlgand and Brokk, their tongues loosed again, turned at once to Malevoxa, weaving the strongest magics they knew to break her free the curse of the Astral Harmony. The others collected themselves and gathered around Gareth, as shocked as he by the might of the vampiress.
Most of the remaining vampires grit their teeth in preparation for their own flight into the hills. Though they would have to push through sunlight to reach cover, most of them were still strong enough to survive the exposure. It was a better chance than they had if they remained here, that much was obvious.
Kyrren`s obvious lack of respect for their free wills, and her cannibalistic punishment against those who displeased her, guaranteed that they would only be slaughtered by her if they stayed. Certainly it occurred to them that, if they were to work together, they could bring her down with only a few perishing in the battle...but which of them would risk this, especially with all these worryingly competent mortals around at the same time?
As they fled, however, the worryingly competent mortals that were the aarakockra fell upon them from above. No vampire, even if they reached the shadowed lee of the nearest hillside, survived long. The sheer numbers of their pursuers overwhelmed their failing strength. Some, the more cowardly, even attempted surrender, in the mistaken belief that as a servant of Good, the Red Captain was inclined to mercy.
"I grant you the mercy of the sun," he had pronounced solemnly. "May it be swifter than the justice of my talons."
Only a very few, the eldest vampires thought to be of the same generation as Kyrren, or perhaps even older, did not consider running. Unlike the younger vampires, they had not fed since awakening, and had not truly shaken off their weariness of the world. As one, they began to crawl back down the holes they had dug to reach the surface, longing for the calm of the Dreaming Pit once more. They were left to it by the remaining mortals, who were gathered around Kyrren, ready to face down this ancient horror.
So it was that nobody, out of all those gathered there, saw the emergence of she who had first lain down to sleep in this earth. A pale girl, her eyes wide and gentle, her skin unmarked by the least sign of her tremendous age, looked out at a world she had left behind in sorrow at her great mistake. Mournfully, she looked at that mistake now, on her knees beneath the sun, a Kalais dancing sword in her heart. The pale girl cried softly, tears as clear as the sky above.
"Mother..." Kyrren gasped haltingly in the Turuk tongue of old, vomiting bloody bile. "Help...me. I cannot...hold out. The sun...too hot...it hurts. Shield me. I am...daughter..."
The pale girl shook her head, replying in the same speech: "To cherish and preserve the beauty of life is what makes a mother or a father, even if they have no children of their own. What parent can hate life so much as to save a child like you?"
Kyrren shrieked once and then exploded into a whirlwind of black dust. Still howling in wordless fury, the whirlwind rushed southeast at great speed, withering the grass beneath it. All watched her passage and knew that, at the very least, the sun had not stolen one ability of vampirekind. Back in her own lands beyond the Wintervale, beyond the Greatwall Mountains, beyond even the scorching sands of the Cen-Cenla, an ancient hidden refuge awaited her. In time, Kyrren the Angelscourge would rise again.
The aftermath of the battle was nearly as tense, for Arlgand and Brokk were visibly pouring all of their strength into the breaking of the curse - the underlying necessity had been planned for, of course, but neither had expected to need to stopper the magic of the Astral Harmony at its height. After some minutes, when Malevoxa finally collapsed in the priest`s arms, Arlgand declared that the hardest part was over. Brokk, looking about ready to throw up, carefully lay himself down before he too fainted, but also claimed that he was only exhausted and could recover given time.
"I too have good news and better news," said Embla, her breathing surprisingly steady for one who had just undergone such exertion. "The good news is that I have a good sword again. And the better news is that I caught up with Wulfram. He had no walking corpses helping him this time. I wonder what help he did have though? Something not of this world, for sure, to make this kind of magic."
"And here return our victorious airborne cavalry," Gareth commented, as the aarokockra took up positions all around. "Looks like we won`t need to worry too much about anything else happening here for a while. His Feathery Redness will take a day or two, I suspect, to recover, then start placing newer and stronger wards above the Dreaming Pit. No more fiendish interventions to help dig it all up again in our lifetimes."
"Speaking of which, to judge from the congealing stains all over you, Madame Aslaug, I suspect whatever wrongs that gnome did you all have been very decisively avenged. So even assuming we bring up whatever`s left, we`re still not going to get anywhere with that line of inquiry. You know? Since we can`t exactly ask him about it." A faint cough made Gareth look over to the Red Captain. "What? Oh. Oh! We may yet have that chance. Wait, why did you think you needed that spell today? Were you...were you expecting one of us to die?"
"Can we discuss this later?" Isolde hissed urgently. "We still have a vampire out here, just watching us."
"You sired that other one, didn`t you?" Aidan now asked that silent observer, still looking towards the southeast. "I suppose that means we can`t just drag you out here as well? Assuming we even can drag you anywhere you don`t want to go...you`re even stronger, aren`t you? Aren`t you?"
By way of answer, the pale girl stepped out of the shadows, turning her alabaster face to the sun with a melancholy smile. As with her vampiric progeny Kyrren, there was neither smoke nor flame. She did seem to diminish somewhat, becoming an ordinary child once more instead of a creature older than Kale itself, but there was no pain in her expression - for hers was the bloodline that had taken the longest to be seared by the light. The aarakockra murmured uneasily, realizing that without the sun to aid them, most would probably die if they had to fight this one.
Aidan`s jaw worked as he considered what to say next, but Embla beat him to it: "You had a nice sword. It`s mine now. As payment, I take your name for knowing its history. I think you are old enough to understand the importance of names where these younglings forget."
The pale girl considered this, a faint halo seeming to shine about her as she bathed in the sunlight. How long had it been since she had had a name of her own? Then in the old speech, she spoke those ancient mocking titles of 'Good-Wife' and 'God-Gift', which had tried to define her through shame and regret, and which at long last she claimed for her own.
"Jie sues un damiselle du mort-viette. Geneviève Donnè-d’Ciel. "
Embla nodded, committing the name to memory. "You go. Sleep elsewhere." Grumblings and sharp looks from around, but no real protests. "I think those below will be killed truly or bound there more tightly this time."
The vampire Geneviève, of the third generation, smiled gratefully at Embla and blew her a kiss - no, blew the sword a kiss, one of farewell, and it shivered in response - before spreading her arms and starting to lift into the air. A thunderbolt cracked, spearing out of a cloudless sky, and was caught in the Red Captain`s outstretched and still bleeding hands, which instantly moulded the elemental lightning into a barbed javelin. For some seconds, undead and aarokockra watched each other, a contest not of wills but of trust, until the Red Captain snorted and allowed his magic to dissipate.
"Go below and bring me at least the head of the slain gnome," he said in clipped and precise Kelevan, rightly suspecting the vampiress would struggle to understand modern Kalais. "And I will not have you followed this day, or this night. As of tomorrow`s dawn, our patrols had best not find you. Else by Thranton and by Tanarus, I shall find a way to deliver you to your rightful Hell."
He drifted farther. A shadowy expanse lay about him. Winds rushed past, sapping the warmth from his bones, the hope from his spirit. Already he was losing what he had been. He knew that he deserved this, somehow. He did not know why. It no longer mattered. There was no salvation from this empty vastness. It was like some great underground, yet one beyond imagining. Even a dwarf or a gnome might be subdued by this place. Had he been a gnome? Perhaps once, no more.
He halted. It was not by choice. A hook had latched onto him. It held him in place. He could not see it, for it was a hook for his soul. That was all he was now. A lost soul, damned to this particular Hell. A name came to him down the line, from the world of life. He wondered if once it might have been his name. As if that mattered. Nothing mattered now. Still, it was a pleasant voice that spoke of whoever Wulfram was. He listened to it and was drawn nearer. The black infinities engulfed him.
He opened his eyes. Light streamed down between pillars of stone. They seemed familiar. His gizzard ached. Carefully, unsteady on flat ground, he picked himself up. Memories came back, mostly unpleasant. A lifetime spent scraping and scratching the most meager of livings in the underbelly of Elder Daven. Petty crimes and treacheries desperately enacted to eke out just one more day. A terrified escape that led to his greater damnation as the pet of a warlock and other more horrible beings. Discomfited, he preened a wing, delicately sifting feather through beak.
He paused. Gnomes did not have beaks. Gnomes did not have wings. Gnomes did not have gizzards. Gnomes did not have such height as to look a familiar and offensively red-haired half-elf in the eye. He squawked in surprise, but there was another in the way of this old enemy. A sturdy bird-man, red of feather and orange of eye. This one spoke of a second chance, at a rebirth offered in exchange for information. A life, again of servitude, but this time unto the Lord of Balance, Dekk.
He wept. This was beyond anything he had dreamed of, far less still than what he had earned. He promised everything he knew. He promised a life spent in devotion. He promised many things and all, it seemed, were accepted. Others, like him - or he who was like them now - crowded round to offer advice to his fledgling body. Instinct would carry him only so far, they laughed, and they would not carry him back to the eyries.
He listened. He learned quickly. Before he left, though, he had some amends to make here. The four he had met back in Elder Daven were all gathered here. They judged him even now. The colossal bronze one who had ripped his old body asunder, though her expression was difficult to discern, seemed the least upset. To them all, he grovelled his apologies. It would never be enough, he acknowledged, for trying to kill them. At last, they seemed willing to permit his new life to begin. They turned to go back to their homes. His new people turned to take to the skies, calling to him to follow.
He spread his wings.
Marchosias fretted. It was not in a devil`s nature to fret, but circumstances were rapidly spiralling out of his control. The worst part of it all was that, having signed a highly irregular contract without even reading it - a grievous lapse that he sorely regretted and blamed entirely on his terror of the greater devil presenting it to him - the imp had no idea what the exact boundaries of his assignment were.
Normally, the workplace conditions he had been exposed to thus far would permit him, following a preliminary evaluation and modest self-performance review, to conduct an expedited claim upon his soul-pledged client. However, Marchosias suspected that his contract forbade even an accidental death for the warlock Naxartes, and actually forced the imp to defend him as best he was possible.
Given that they were now slinking away from the scene of their most recent defeat, abandoning everything - including the moderately useful gnome Wulfram and, thankfully, that worrisome gnoll Serious Jaa'hla - and aiming for the Wild Lands beyond Kale...well, Marchosias was less than optimistic that his job was anywhere near done. To make things worse, his insufferably arrogant soul-pledge seemed to consider this a victory!
"I have absolute faith in your abilities, oh Glorious Master," Marchosias spoke carefully, so as to try avoiding a painful flaming from the irritable warlock. "Yet if I may be so bold, what of the relics left behind in the Dreaming Pit? Should even one of those be claimed by our enemies, it may prove a gross annoyance to us later."
"Very well, Imp!" Naxartes proclaimed, still refusing to acknowledge Marchosias by his name. "I shall explain to you exactly why I do not fear anything that may come. Whilst the dog-man gibbered his laughs to the petty-gnome, and you wove patent lies about speaking to vampires of bygone ages, I was actually busy."
He pulled out a strange amulet from beneath his robes, flourishing it with such glee than it even overrode his naturally smug demeanor. It was fashioned of several metals molded into spheres, each engraved with a unique mystic sigil, and arranged into a pattern that Marchosias would have sworn he had seen before.
"For I retrieved the only important artifact from within that moldering tomb. Behold, Imp! The Twelve Moons Periapt! Worn by the very first coven master of the Circle of Twelve Moons. Unjustly hidden from the worthy by those too pitiful to contemplate its powers. Yet no matter how they schemed to keep it from me, I learned of it. They feared what I might become and so banded together to keep me from the heights of the coven. Fools all, and dead all too! Yet I endure."
Wondering what magic was held in the periapt, but knowing better than to ask outright, Marchosias tried another tack. "And what of our hateful enemies? They have overcome every challenge we have thrown at them so far. A far deadlier force must be sent against them else they shall pursue us still further."
Naxartes glared at the imp witheringly. "Again, you pathetic sack of feathers, you test my patience. Still, I am in a gracious mood. Perhaps I shall not set your tail alight just yet. Listen well and understand: I communed with my patron. For once, they showed intelligence and were most amenable to my suggestions. We are stepping back to allow another to intervene. The plan is already in motion. Kale is yet in the season of reaping...and my enemies shall be harvested before the year is out!"
"I appreciate that it`s not really your field of expertise, but 'slightly better than one in a thousand' is not the sort of odds I like to hear regarding a spell that brings people back from the dead."
Brokk struggled to think of a different way to explain it, as he had several times over the last eight hours. "All right, how about this: life and death is like moving a drink from one mug to another. Typical resurrections are simply pouring the soul, the drink, back into the original mug. When a druid gets involved, they make an entirely new mug, even if the old one is still available."
"So long as the new mug can hold the drink, they don`t care what it looks like, and so you get all sorts of designs, purely randomly. That the former Wulfram was a gnome and happened to reborn as an aarakockra is purely coincidental, rather than a deliberate choice on behalf of the caster - no matter that he was the same species. Am I getting anywhere near to a decent explanation at last, or what?"
Isolde grumbled, but to everyone`s relief, finally seemed to accept the answer. Her questioning had very nearly made it impossible for Brokk to rest his mind enough to replenish his spells. Certainly, they could all ride back to Rentes if the need arose, with Embla trotting alongside of course. However, the simple use of a teleportation circle was vastly preferred, especially since Malevoxa was still recovering - and adamant that she had not succumbed to the Astral Harmony more quickly than expected due to feeling competitive. Regardless, Brokk at last performed the ritual that would carry them across the entire country in mere seconds.
However, upon returning to the estate, it was immediately obvious that a restful day was not going to await them. The servants were flurrying in all directions, desperately trying to obey a multitude of conflicting orders. Gareth, seeing his household in this state of chaos, promptly tried to hide himself in the wine cellar before anyone noticed. He had barely touched the handle before the door was pulled open from within, leaving him wholly exposed to the angry glare of an imposing figure whose profile now adorned every new-minted Kalais coin.
"Upstairs now, Marquis!" King Milon Dukalle growled. "You have a guest even more important than myself, and I am finding myself unwilling to explain to him why his smuggler associate was found impaled on his own cellar`s spigots!"
"Well, you see, technically, your majesty, not to say you`re wrong or anything," the irrepressible Gareth said at once. "But even assuming I was doing anything, it`s only smuggling if it`s illegal, and I`d`ve theoretically made absolutely sure to check that there`s nothing illegal about pursuing a private cross-border enterprise of intrinsically magical goods...such as flail snail shells, for instance, just plucking something randomly from the air. Had they been artificial magical items, of course, oh ho! Well I`d be in deep-"
Clever arguments aside, Gareth was, obviously. King and marquis continued to argue as the distinguished guest, an Iorannor of the Medel-Warders, was introduced. He was a tall and proud altarim, his accent cultivated over centuries of the highest education. Though clearly ranking high among the nobility of the Belendale, he spoke cordially to all, with not so much as a hint of duplicity or sly insinuation to any of their backgrounds or social positions.
Even when Embla grunted at his courteous bow, picked him up by the shoulders, and moved the startled elf to one side so that she could pass ("I have a baby to feed and a sword to polish, and neither will wait for you!"), he recovered his stride quickly and made no mention of the inappropriateness of it all. Pausing only to hand over an ornate scroll to Aidan, who frowned at the unfamiliar seal before breaking it to read the contents, Warder Iorannor continued to make polite and relatively meaningless conversation for several minutes.
"Aidan, what`s wrong?" Isolde asked suddenly. "You`ve got that sort of look which says you just realized you walked into a tavern of drow whilst insulting all of their mothers."
"We are cordially invited," Aidan said in a strangled tone, eyes bulging at what was written in the beautiful, flawless Elwar script. "To attend as honored guests at the solstice festivities in Gloralion, the Summervale. By the, oh Heshtail preserve me, by the personal request of His Cygnal Majesty Baranwë."
TO BE CONTINUED