Storms Over Kelerak

Part One

By R. Krommydas

Appropriately, when the storm finally broke, so did the horse’s nerve. With a scream, it reared and tore its reins free, blindly backing away from the monstrous wolf that snarled and gnashed its frothing jaws before them. Iron-shod hooves, strong enough to split an ogre’s skull, lashed the air and glanced off elf-mail, sending its winded owner spinning down the incline straight into the river below. The horse fled into the dusk, heavy-laden cart bouncing behind it. The poor beast managed nearly half a mile before sharp words, spoken in a strained voice, stilled it.

Legend Hand of God concept art - hell wolf, licensed for non-commercial reuse

Two small, pale faces peeked over the side of the cart. The first belonged to a young halfling woman whose eyes were normally firm, if not outright steely, but currently were dazed and watering. She held on for all of ten more seconds before moaning and letting the contents of her stomach fly. The second face almost looked like it belonged on a particularly elderly gnome, pale and hairless and wizened, but its hard features were uniquely dwarven.

“That teach you to ride with me?” the strange dwarf asked, and between dry heaves, the halfling shook her head. “Thought not. Gods above, that nearly did for me. No more magic today. Can’t…tired…”

With a little sigh, the dwarf’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed into the makeshift bed that occupied most of the cart. His companion quickly wiped her mouth, grimacing at the aftertaste, and forced her nausea down. From experience, she knew the binding spell on the horse would not last for long without being maintained, and if she wanted to avoid another wild ride across Kelerak’s least hospitable border road, she would need to start trying to calm the animal as quickly as possible.

As for her companions further south, she didn’t worry in the slightest. It was only one wolf, after all. One gigantic, starving, possibly rabid, dire wolf. On second thoughts, Isolde reflected, perhaps it was better the horse had bolted. It made sure she and poor Brokk were completely out of any danger whatsoever.

♢♢♢♢♢

Wolves, like many of the higher animals, have a vague understanding of self. They have strong memories. They can recognize friends and enemies by sight, sound, and smell. They communicate the same way. They can even express the concept of a specific creature or place. Dire wolves, for all their greater savagery, are no different.

If she had a name as humans or elves understood the notion, it might translate to “Fleet the Strongjaw.” Countless hunts had proven she had earned this. She had run with the great packs of her true kind among the cold pines and dominated the cub packs of these warmer lands. Now she was old. She was still strong. She was still fast. Even alone, this was enough to stop her from starving. She almost remembered when she never hungered or felt cold, but these were faded memories, more dreams. Faint. Unimportant.

Heavy rain was falling. All scents would be washed away soon enough. No matter. She knew about the clumsy tree-pieces that two-feet often kept horses near. They left deep tracks, better to follow than scent, and greatly slowed horses. She would kill these two-feet first, to safeguard its catch, then leave them. Horse-flesh was a better meal than any two-feet. The big two-feet here looked to be all muscle and sinew anyway.

It had a strange smell to it, but she was not afraid, merely wary through experience. It smelled like the rocky two-feet she had once hunted along pine trails and frosted cliffs, but different. They were tough prey and were sometimes the hunters. This smelled like a female, but not a mother. This was good. Mothers were very dangerous. Many of her pack-mates ran no more after fighting a mother. She was almost intelligent enough to regret not being one herself.

There was also its not-claw, for two-feet were mostly weak and had no fangs in their mouth or claws on their feet to fight. The not-claw it carried was much bigger than those she had seen before, and her predator’s instincts warned it would give the two-feet a long reach. She had lost half an ear to that mistake once. Never again. Not even now.

Her jaws hurt. Her throat hurt. She was thirsty all the time, but water burned her. Her spit poured from her always. She felt angry always. Sometimes she even wanted to bite herself. She had seen cub packs stop running when too many felt like this. Her most recent pack had felt like this. They fought each other as if each was of a different pack. Some had even fought her too. She was almost intelligent enough to understand her pain had come from this.

Killing two-feet helped for a little time. They did not taste so good as horse, but those with not-claws at least fought better. This made her less angry. There was less pain when she was less angry. She was very angry now. She moved in to kill the big two-feet with the big not-claw. It fought very well. It fought better than any prey she had ever hunted. Soon there was almost no pain at all, even when its not-claw bit her.

She was almost intelligent enough to feel gratitude.

♢♢♢♢♢

Water and obscenities both poured from the half-elf’s mouth as he fought the current to reach the riverbank. He did not need to look to know that a hoof-shaped bruise was already forming underneath his mail. If he was unlucky, he would find out in an hour or two that the blow had cracked a rib as well. Not badly, inasmuch as any broken bone cannot be a bad thing, but just enough to possibly avoid notice until it healed wrong and would need “correction.”

Aidan had experienced that delightful nightmare once before, many years ago. For some reason, it was more embarrassing to admit that he had broken his arm by falling out of a tree he had been playing in than by fighting some terrible monster, and the number of people who knew the truth could be counted on the fingers of one hand. That he had been somewhere north of forty years old when this happened probably accounted for the embarrassment. Having the bone re-broken and re-set by a trained healer was not something he ever wished to undergo again.

At least for the moment, his pride was more badly injured. He stamped his way up the bank to the road, arguing with himself over the merits of having horse meat for supper tonight – assuming this torrential downpour stopped long enough to actually make a fire possible – and just harnessing himself to the cart. Or harnessing Embla to it, more realistically. She was both large enough and strong enough to make such a thing feasible, if somewhat degrading to the Erunian warrior.

He reached the top of the bank in time to see Embla crash into the mud on her back, her sword arm gripped between the jaws of the massive wolf. He suspected his expression of surprise was a mirror of her own, especially when they both realized that she had dropped her sword at the same time. Aidan had seen some of the feats of strength she had performed, even when not empowered by berserk fury, and for her to have been literally brought low like this seemed staggeringly unlikely.

More worrying, however, was the calculating and almost thoughtful look on the wolf’s face, despite the clear signs of it being rabid. Ordinarily, Aidan would not have balked at facing such a creature, even unarmed as he was thanks to that accursed horse taking the cart with his Warhammer in it. However, while the mere rabid savagery was one thing, what he saw in this creature was another. It chilled him more than the rain.

“Today, villtri!” Embla bellowed at him, trying to pry apart the jaws with her other hand. “This hurts a lot, fool!”

Startled, Aidan shook himself and rushed forward to help. Clasping his hands together over his head, he took a deep breath to steady his aim and brought down his fists with all his strength on the nape of the dire wolf. It let out the faintest grunt that was not entirely of pain, but more of surprise. For the briefest moment, its grip on Embla loosened.

It was enough. With her own immense strength, Embla forced apart its jaws and withdrew her arm before it could recover itself. She swung, but the wolf leaped away. It started to snarl at the two warriors, then stopped. It looked down at the ruts left by the cart. For a few seconds, it seemed to be considering its options. Then it turned and fled into the deepening night, leaving the two warriors behind.

♢♢♢♢♢

They caught up with the horse and cart ten minutes later, and after verifying that Brokk, in particular, was stable, they resumed their journey as best they could. The storm was getting worse, and none of them were surprised. It had been building for nigh on two weeks, leading to an ever more oppressive atmosphere that had soon quashed their improving mood.

After their exhausting struggles against the undead that continued to plague the nation of Daven, they had decided to travel north into Kelerak, hoping to find a cure for whatever ailed Brokk. The dwarf, or rather his wizardry, had proven instrumental in their success, but he had paid a heavy price. He had lain, still and unresponsive, for several days before starting to come back to them. Close to a month after that final battle, he was still prone to narcoleptic fits and drifting in and out of lucidity. He had spoken of professional acquaintances in Kelerak, academics and experts in various fields, and his friends knew that Brokk’s best chances for recovery lay with one or more of them.

At last, sometime after it was already impossible for them to become any more drenched, Aidan made the decision to turn off the road proper and find shelter. The Stonewall Mountains that divided the nations of Daven and Kelerak were riddled with caves. Almost immediately, they found one big enough to admit the horse and cart, and hurried into it. As Embla and Isolde began the business of setting up camp, Aidan heaved himself into the back of the cart to check again on Brokk.

“Rough night, isn’t it?”

The voice that came from the back of the cave was a strong one that carried clearly over the crashing of the storm. There was laughter behind it, a maniacal delight that made the simple question decidedly unsettling. Aidan narrowed his eyes at the speaker, wondering both that the man had not lit a fire for himself already and that they had not seen him until now, but from his awkward position could not make much out. He was a tall and straight-backed figure leaning half on a whorled staff and half against the cave wall, dressed in strange-patterned traveling robes and with a wild mop of greying hair.

“Tell you a secret,” the peculiar man continued, shaking with unconstrained mirth. “No chance of reaching Fisherman’s Solace now. This is no ordinary storm, my friends. It is a herald of disaster. A forerunner of doom most foul.”

Aidan nodded understandingly, humoring the madman, only for Isolde to blurt out, “And naturally you know this?”

“Of course I do!” came the reply. “I see everything.”

The man threw back his head to roar with glee as the storm intensified. Lightning cracked outside, briefly illuminating his craggy features, but the four friends were horror-struck, unable to take in any of them bar the most dreadful.

His eyes were sewn shut.

♢♢♢♢♢

To everyone’s relief, the blinded oracle, if such indeed he was, did not keep up his demented laughter for long, the howls trailing off into quieter giggles that were no less unsettling, but more easily ignored. He kept to his own corner of the cave, murmuring to himself and only occasionally allowing louder bursts of laughter to escape him as some private joke suggested itself.

Aidan nonetheless motioned for Isolde to keep a watchful eye on him as he examined Embla’s arm. “Two, when I can spare them,” she had replied. The damage was far from the worst he had ever seen, and he hoped the combination of her own constitution and his own ministrations would prevent any infection, at least until they reached a proper temple to have the wound cleansed properly.

“Carry absolutely no more than half the usual weight on this arm,” he said at last, satisfied he could do no more. “I will allow carrying your sword, but not using it.”

Out of habit, he braced himself for an argument and allowed himself a self-deprecatory smile when one did not come. This patient was Embla, after all, and she trusted his healer’s skill as much as he trusted her martial prowess. In fact, she looked angrier with herself than with him, but her expression when he started to broach the subject was clear enough that Aidan decided to put off that conversation for the following day. Or possibly the one after the day after tomorrow.

Leaving Embla to contemplate her arm, and with Isolde watching for any hostility from their dubious companion in his unlit recess, Aidan turned his attention to himself. Carefully, slowly, he peeled himself out of his mail, offering up a silent prayer of thanks to its former owners among his ancestors for having kept it in such good condition until it passed to him.

As he suspected, there was a very clear horseshoe-shaped indent in his flesh, the whiteness stark against several rich shades of purple surrounding it. Gently, he started to run his fingers along the bruise, biting back a yelp and feeling for the sudden spike of pain that would tell of a ruptured blood vessel or a fractured bone. There seemed to be nothing of sort and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“You should check your left thigh,” the strange man spoke up suddenly, startling them all. “Three fingers above the knee on the inside. Wait. Three of my fingers, four of yours. Strong, yet elf-slender.”

Aidan glared at him in deep suspicion but lowered his hand to examine his leg anyway. Almost at once, his fingers touched upon a splinter of rock that had driven itself into his thigh, doubtless during his involuntary descent into the river. It was smooth and razor-sharp, so much so that he had not even felt it pierce him, or even given the faint ache there any more thought than simple weariness.

The realization of this injury chilled him more than the weather. Thinking of it as a stab wound, he had experience enough as both healer and warrior to know just how dangerous this could be. If he tried to remove the splinter, the pain would cause his muscles to tense, putting pressure on the great artery immediately next to the wound, which likely grazed its exterior. This would cause the artery to burst, quickly spilling his life’s blood – but if he left it inside, perhaps trapping some leather or simple dirt from his clothing, infection and blood poisoning would set in quickly, and then be carried throughout his body to rot him away from the inside out. As many a paladin before him had learned to their cost, sepsis was a poison, not a disease, and they were not intrinsically shielded from that by their divine patrons.

“The storm is a forerunner of catastrophe, did I not tell you?” the madman, the mad oracle, repeated sombrely. “You are caught in its grip. You have been cursed, all of you. Aidan of Zel and Isolde Ballussia. Brokk the Gnostic and Embla Aslaug. For what comes next, you, and all Kelerak, have my sympathy. Though I am looking forward to every moment of it!”

♢♢♢♢♢

The morning could not come soon enough, least of all for Aidan. He had spent most of the night trying to improvise either a splint or a half-crutch, or both, from part of the cart, so he would not have to put all his weight on his bad leg. In the process, he suspected he had received enough wooden splinters to make a whole new cart just for him. Perhaps a curse was in effect, he had no way to tell, and poor Brokk was less than forthcoming on the matter.

His mood did not improve much when they resumed their journey. Over Aidan’s polite objections, the oracle had chosen to walk with them, negotiating the confines of the cave and the rough path outside both with a surety that belied his blindness. For a while, he spent time in esoteric conversation with a weary-but-interested Brokk, apparently on the subject of divination, then he drifted back over to the paladin as they passed through a thick copse of young birches.

“Oh come now, don’t look so glum!” he chastised, the intended severity of his tone ruined by the underlying, ever-present laughter. “You aren’t cursed to death. Just pain and misery. Heshtail will see you through that. You reaffirmed yourself to His Mercy, did you not?”

Aidan’s suspicions deepened further, to match the gloom about them. “And how do you know about that?”

“I told you, I see everything. Even if I didn’t, you woke up half of Arden doing that. Even sleepy Daven will perk up to the story of a mad elf shouting to the gods watch your step now in the middle of the road.”

“Half-elf and wait what, watch my-?” Aidan started to interrupt, only to stumble over a sudden dip in the ground. “I suppose you saw that too?”

“Hmm? Oh nonsense, tripped over that bit myself many a time! This road has a habit of catching you unawares. Even me, and I’ve been walking it for…oooh. I’m sure Hoth Tarran was still alive when I first came this way. Sixty years? Wait. Might have been just after Tarran was replaced by Zelliros. Or was it Ashraw who killed him?”

As the oracle muttered over his distant history, Aidan groaned and, not wanting to be caught out by the road again, turned his attention to it fully. Too late, as it happened, as an overhanging branch that Embla had pushed aside chose that moment to whip back into its usual place. The unfortunate half-elf let out a muffled cry as it caught him full in the face.

“What was-oh that!” the oracle’s head moved to follow the offending branch. “Aidan, you’re taller than I thought. Don’t worry, I’ll look out for you. Come on now.”

Rubbing his forehead, spitting out a leaf, and quietly pondering the merits of burning the entire copse down, Aidan obediently stepped behind the blind man and followed carefully.

♢♢♢♢♢

The party reached Fisherman’s Solace in the early afternoon of the second day after the storm. In that time, numerous minor accidents had continued to befall them, though far less dangerous than had been experienced during the downpour itself.

With his wounded leg threatening to seize up after the first few hours on the road, Aidan reluctantly began to ride in the cart with Brokk and Isolde more and more, listening to the halfling entertain herself in various games of chance to learn the name of their new oracular companion.

When Aidan had tried to argue that this was a pointless exercise against someone who could see the future, she had told a long and convoluted tale from hositan scripture detailing a competition between the three great trickster gods to be the first to learn the name of the new goddess of fate in the pantheon. By the time she had finished, smugly noting that it was the hositan deity Bunga who had triumphed where the gods of the other races had failed, Aidan was even more confused as to why she thought she could outwit a seer and gave up on logic.

Instead, he turned his attention to Embla and her savaged arm. To his relief, whenever he checked, the wounds proved to be clean and responding well to his treatment, and there seemed to be no sign of rabies taking hold of his friend. This was a pronouncement he made just loudly enough to be reassuring, for he knew full well there would be no visible symptoms of the terrible disease for close to a month. By the faintly amused glance she had given him after the first time he had “confirmed” the absence of rabies, Aidan also knew that she shared his knowledge of this fact.

Aidan reflected on the sad truth that, barring magical intervention, there was nothing either of them could do if the dire wolf had indeed infected her. A layman might have asked why Brokk, even if the effort exhausted him further, did not use his own magic to preempt the symptoms entirely, but despite his expertise, stretching beyond the usual limits of wizards, he was still an arcanist and thus unable to cast the curative spells required.

Not for the first time, Aidan found himself questioning that oddity, which was but one of the age-old divisions between the various recognized forms of spellcaster. Arcanists such as wizards and sorcerers could perform grand manipulations of the elements and of the mind that were beyond the ability of the most devout priests; yet even the newest initiate of a church knew of thaumaturgy and basic healing spells.

“I have got to ask Brokk about this one day,” he promised himself, a little glumly. “If anyone can explain it to me in a way I’ll understand…well, it probably won’t be him, but I owe him the chance to try. And maybe one of his associates can succeed where he fails.”

He considered this for a moment, then spitefully added: “Always provided we can find one in this wretched country.”

♢♢♢♢♢

Even for the most ideal paladin, some evil was difficult to pity. Almost none from the Occupied Realms tried to consider the Dark Folk as worthy of redemption, and his elf-blood left Aidan with a further loathing for his (ah, speak the word softly!) cousins that were the drow. Kelerak had a share in this antipathy.

As with its neighbors of Kale and Daven, Kelerak was one of the younger nations, its history several centuries shorter than any of the lands to the east, and also theoretically free of the oppressive forces of the Wintervale. The legacy of those times when the land was ruled by the demonic Lord of Lust was still keenly felt from border to border.

Aidan and his friends had experienced first-hand the aftermath of the Dark Occupation in Daven, a plague of undeath that had been initiated by the insatiable vampiric hunger of its overlord, the Lord of Gluttony, and exacerbated by necromancers and warlocks seeking their own immortality and eternal servants. In Kelerak, the lingering evil was more subtle, though no less obscene, and well known throughout the civilized world.

If you wanted a pleasure slave, of whichever race you fancied, you went to Kelerak. If you wanted to visit a new brothel each night for a year, you went to Kelerak. If you wanted the mystical aphrodisiac pollen of a snow rose, you went to…Anaria, actually, but the safest routes were through Kelerak.

It was a common knowledge that had spread like a miasma, and decent folk did their best to keep it from their thoughts, knowing they could do nothing to change matters. It was all too ingrained, so it was believed, and so long as it remained out of sight, it could be kept out of mind. Little of this was spoken aloud, or admitted in writing, and scarcely even alluded to save among the lowest dregs of society, with two notable exceptions.

The first of these was the secret temples of the prohibited faiths in the Occupied Realms, who taught their clerics and paladins of this insidious influence so that they might better combat it if their travels ever took them there. As part of his training, Aidan himself had endured several trials of faith to withstand the devious seductions of succubi summoned solely to tempt him into sin. Even counting some of his experiences since that time had been one of the most difficult and unpleasant of his life.

The second came from within Kelerak itself, from the impassioned oratory of its newest and most popular nobleman, the Baron Russel Starsul of the Greensreach. His fiery sermons, delivered with equal fervor from pulpits and street corners alike, were regularly carried through the land by his followers, and even across the borders by merchants and tinkers. If any one thing could be deemed responsible for Kelerak’s unsavory reputation, it was this.

♢♢♢♢♢

“Rhythm, or possibly cadence, Embla Aslaug. That is the word you will want to use very soon.”

Unlike her friends, Embla did not attempt to think about what the oracle was saying, or why, and merely stored the information away. Aidan, and Brokk in particular, would have wanted to dissect the sentence, to try to determine any hidden reason for speaking it at that moment, or to work out why they might need to use that particular word. Isolde would have tried to outsmart the prophecy by immediately speaking that word, and pat herself on the back for being so witty. For Embla, who had never seen any value in such mental acrobatics, there was no reason to give the matter the first thought, never mind a second.

Instead, she chose to respond with a wholly different observation: “Almost I could mistake your speech for a heavy accent. It is not just that, or even the strange words I do not know, yet my friends understand. How you speak is different, the dance of your language is new. It has a word-music – ah, a rhythm! – to it. I hear similar from these fishing villagers. You all speak Davenian very strangely.”

A slightly embarrassed cough told her that Brokk wanted to join the conversation, and she fell back a few steps so he would not need to raise his voice.

“It is the reverse, Embla,” the wizened dwarf explained, only looking her half in the eyes. “It is we who speak Kelevan strangely. The Davenians are a proud people and prefer to think they invented the language they speak, not their northern neighbors. At the time we met, it was easier just to let you believe what they did. So when in Daven, we speak Davenian, not Kelevan. The language is the same, but you get more out a Davenian by disagreeing with that, and a Kelerite does not care, so many learn the Davenian accent. Do you see? Embla? You seem…upset.”

Truth be told, Embla looked more than upset. Had it been anyone other than Brokk who had told her of this nationalistic idiocy, she would not have believed them. It was one thing to be proud of one’s heritage as her ample experience with the tribal languages of the Sutherland and the Kunese peoples had taught her that, but this was the first time she had encountered something she truly considered stupid, not merely a cultural curiosity.

The notion was offensive to her. It was a pure refusal of truth to bolster a fragile ego, and her opinion of the Davenians, which as a whole had not been particularly high, found itself dropping to a new low. Briefly, Embla’s lips were pulled back, and her tongue could be heard scraping against gritted teeth in animalistic disgust and shudders of anger ran down her shoulders to her hands. Brokk recoiled from the hideous expression, which bore a terrible similarity to the rictus grin of her battle-rage, but it was gone almost as soon as it came.

“I hope your people disappoint less than others I have met so far,” Embla said to the oracle, a cold tension lingering in her voice.

♢♢♢♢♢

FIRST INTERLUDE

From his comfortable perch overlooking the entryway, Daath Threebows, clan-speaker to the Ashen Pillars tribe and that eve’s lookout, watched the flatlanders struggle in the rarefied air, merchant and guard alike weakened by the altitude. He wondered again how such weak creatures had such great numbers. Their nation-clans swarmed across the world without order or reason, fighting themselves as much as each other, be they Children of the Swan or the Tree or the Serpent. He could not understand it.

What he could understand, to an extent, was their reason for forcing themselves to these peaks. They carried items they thought valuable, crafted from gold or silver, often set with polished gems and decorated with the most intricate of carvings. In exchange for these, they would receive ironwood and maybe even steel, if they haggled well, and permission to travel even higher up the mountain to the tribes that dwelt there.

Of course, only the greediest, most foolish flatlander would ignore the pain in his chest and the dizziness behind his eyes to make that journey. Few of that sort had the strength to survive what they felt as the thinnest and coldest of airs.

The young nemedene shook his head. It was still a mystery to him why his hosts thought they were benefiting from this trade. Shiny metals and rocks were all well and good to look at, but they could not be made into a worthy bow or club, or woven into cloth or nets, or eaten, or medicinal. His musings on the subject were interrupted by a ritual call from below:

“Hail the Threebows! One who would be a friend asks leave to approach.”

He looked down, ready to give a cheerful wave along with his response, but hesitated. A prickling sensation reared its head along the dark and bony growths on his shoulders, their mystical formation signifying watchfulness and caution. It was not a member of the Ashen Pillars who stood by the ladder, any of whom, man or woman, priest or hunter, elder or child, he would have invited up without a qualm, but one of the Aslaug.

As with all nemedenes hosted by a Risarvinni tribe, Daath would be granted the same rights and protections under the law as any member of the tribe, for so long as he did his best to abide by their ways, and even its chieftain would struggle to overrule a lookout’s refusal to be joined.

However, when it came to the Aslaug? The Aslaug made the laws and enforced them with blood and terror such that Daath tried his best not to envisage. They were beyond reproach or censure, beyond priest or chieftain: mortal wives of the solitary Risarvinni god and themselves considered to border on the divine. What Aslaug wanted, Aslaug got.

“The horizons are empty and so is my side,” Daath called down reluctantly. “The watcher will welcome a friend to join him.”

♢♢♢♢♢

No matter how much the Risarvinnae looked like flatlanders on the outside, they were very different on the inside. There, they were more like the nemedenes or even gigants, and Daath recalled that there were dark and unpleasant stories that spoke of their ancestors warring against a lost clan of monstrous gigants. The foulest legends even hinted that, by the time of their final victory, the Risarvinnae had become more gigant than flatlander, and that was why they were today stuck between the two, neither one thing nor the other.

When the Aslaug reached his perch, Daath had to admit there was a lot of evidence for the truth of those legends. He was tall even for a nemedene, but still had to look up to meet the Aslaug’s gaze. He regretted his courage here, for the eyes that stared back at him were not the soft browns or warm greens of any flatlander, but a frostbite blue that was nearly silver.

She smelled of charcoal and copper and sweat, her skin speckled with smoky grit, fresh from a forge in full heat. Cords of muscle along her arms and neck pulsed visibly with each heartbeat, and Daath suspected her raw strength was greater even than his, for all that he had proven himself to be a mightier wrestler than any member of the Ashen Pillars.

The silence between them stretched out for several seconds. Daath was about ready to break it with some inanity when the Aslaug turned her head to look back down at the flatlanders. There was no wind, but the great brushed out Risarvinni locks framed the sharp disgust on her face.

“Ishians,” she stated as though commenting on the weather. “Once they might have been all the world, from frost to sand. Now, look at them, how far they have fallen. Vultures wheedling and whining for steel, pledging gold in exchange. As if you could not take gold with steel.”

“But then Kunese rats come crawling, pleading for gold for their masters. They leave their treasures behind and we give them to the tiger cubs of Badala. Then Sutherlanders seeking tales, and Turuks with their trinkets, and Havenish raiding for plunder, so come again the Ishians for steel to fight with.”

Daath quailed as she turned back, looking through him to the horizons. She wore a smile that he had seen other Risarvinnae wear, a promise made to each other just before they tried to draw blood. With them, it was about the violent joy of the competition, and the chance to redeem themselves against one who had bested themselves before. With the Aslaug, however, it was nothing so personal. It was a smile meant for all the world beyond Risarvinni territory, a smile that was nothing if not a memory of the long-dead gigants that once ruled here.

It was a smile that said: ‘You only think you know what we can do. We know exactly what you can do. We will teach you this and you will weep bitterly for your lost ignorance. The Aslaug want this and what Aslaug want, Aslaug get.’

When the silence returned, Daath summoned up his courage to break it first. “Forgive the question, Aslaug, but why did you wish to join me on my watch? If it was to learn of me, you could do this when the day is done and a roasting fire is before us.”

The Aslaug’s smile gentled, though not a great deal. “You are the clan-speaker of the Thanavaddim. They are a clan with memories of walking so far as Gorug. I need those memories. You will tell your clan this: that their memory is long, but that of Embla Aslaug is longer.”

♢♢♢♢♢

Like always, the flatland air made Daath feel sluggish of body and slow of mind, as though he was breathing water. He would adapt in a day or two, and the unpleasant feeling would fade like morning fog. Less likely to fade was the satisfaction of seeing the Aslaug discomfited by the same thick air, no different to himself.

His clan had returned to collect him some nine weeks after the meeting. He had done as she had commanded. He had barely been surprised when the loresinger protested her intended journey, and only slightly more so when she had invoked the Skykin’s Right in clear, unaccented Nemed. What Aslaug wanted, Aslaug got – true, always within the boundaries of the law, but Daath remembered that Aslaug made the laws. Even those between Risarvinni and nemedene.

The loresinger gave the Aslaug the memories she wanted. She started walking them within the hour. He was unsure why, but when he saw her growing smaller, Daath asked for his third bow. His clan gathered around him, arguing and pleading according to their nature. He smiled back in answer, a Risarvinni smile, a smile from the age of gigants.

Not long after, he slowed his pace, matching the long and steady strides of the Aslaug. They walked in silence, she with a sword, he with his third bow, both with utter surety. Daath began to weave a net as they walked, and from the second week they had fish and pheasant on some nights.

Once they met a true gigant, of the pale and willowy Aldran nation-clan that were so reminiscent of Swan Children. It sat all but unmoving beside the path, watching them approach, its head twitching horribly to a new position each time they passed from its direct sight. It was exactly like a wasp or mantis studying potential prey.

When they were no more than three armspans distant, it rose to its feet, a spear of liquid starlight in its hand and a curse of ebon bleakness on its tongue. Daath had his third bow ready before the first syllable fell, arrow nocked and aimed and loosed at the flashing eye nearest him.

The gigant’s spell-curse died on its lips. The gigant itself died much more slowly, but long before the end, Daath learned he did not enjoy this sort of competition. When it stopped moving, and he had regained his breath, he stood by it and looked into the unseeing redness of its remaining eye. Gently, he pulled the lid over the dead orb, the Aslaug watching his actions closely. He told her he hoped the gigant was now looking at a world less brutal than this one. Even if it had tried to send them out of this world early.

Later, he looked back on this as the precursor to his journey’s end. The reeking fastness that was Gorug lay before them one day, revealed by the early morning light as they crested a hill, and the Aslaug had placed a hand on his shoulder at the sight. For a while, Daath had been tempted to argue, but then he thought of the gigant they had met. It had not carried much with it, save for a strongbox they had left untouched, for it had borne the mark of the Wintervale on its lock. There would be more of its ilk in Gorug and beyond, Daath knew.

He could survive them. He could continue to follow the Aslaug and make memories for his clan that reached beyond Gorug. But the Aslaug did not want him to do this. Perhaps she was disappointed with his gentleness at the end of the gigant’s life. Perhaps she was proud of it, or indifferent, or had merely grown bored with his presence. It might be any number of reasons and Daath did not care to know which it was, especially if it was because she had found him as lackluster as the flatlanders she had condemned.

Besides, as he knew well by now, what Aslaug wanted…

♢♢♢♢♢

For a short while after reaching Fisherman’s Solace, things seemed to be going well.

With her typical speed and improbability, Isolde found an inn actually worth overnighting at, haggled the price down to a paltry fifteen coppers per person (plus two fullweight moons for a private stall and stablehand), picked up a local map that was barely three years old (“Very nice but now go back and pay for it,” Aidan had scolded,) and somehow arranged for the local priest to visit by nightfall.

The group had settled into their rooms, which had actual straw mattresses on the beds. They had supped in the common room without Isolde trying to join a game of chance. Brokk had been able to walk under his own power for nearly an hour and even cast a simple divination to reassure Aidan that blood poisoning had not yet set in.

They had then spent much of the remaining day trying to follow his explanation of the distinct forms of magic. Most of it, even when he simplified the terms, was almost incomprehensible. Isolde had seemed to grasp the concepts most readily and even asked several questions that had not even occurred to the others. Brokk answered them as best he could, eventually summarising:

“Any given spell retains the same fundamental qualities and limitations, whether it is cast by a wizard or a warlock or a cleric, or even a bard. It is the varying manners of accessing the energies required to cast that same spell which accounts for any difference it displays in practice. You know the signs of these. Incantations, gestures, symbols, reagents, and so forth. Each unique to the style of casting.”

“A wizard thus needs his spellbook, a bard his music, and so forth. But, as we all know, not every spell may be cast by every spellcaster. Across every difference, every variation, in all schools of magical study and theory, this is the Keystone Axiom upon which all modern understanding of magic is built.”

Isolde had then pointed out that Brokk had been known to cast spells that, by his own admission, a wizard ought not be able to – divining the absence of poison in Aidan’s blood, the burst of daylight in the Ruin Wood caves, and more besides that to her mind, conflicted with the most important and resilient rule of magic.

Brokk had responded with a simple: “I sometimes suspect we are operating without any rules at all.”

The terrifying implications of that phrase had silenced them for a time, and their oracular friend excused himself with a secretive smile. When the conversation resumed, it was on matters of less cosmic import and grandeur. The remainder of their evening was slightly more subdued than it had started out as, but nothing especially grim or foreboding.

Not until the building collapsed about them in a rain of fire.

TO BE CONTINUED