Storms Over Kelerak

Part Two

By R. Krommydas

PREVIOUS PART

Several hours passed before the blaze was extinguished and the last corpse was pulled from the wreckage of the inn. Over twenty people had suffered a variety of burns and broken bones, eight people had lost their lives, and once he had stopped coughing up smoke, Aidan found he had lost his patience—a sentiment his friends shared.

The half-elf leaned his weight on Embla, his injured leg being tended by the local priest, whilst Isolde helped steady Brokk on his feet. The four glared daggers at the man they had begun to see as a friend, albeit an extremely strange one, and knew that his stitched-shut eyes were looking back at them.

A Spywing, by Ching-Yun Xavier Ho

Scared and confused Kelerite villagers staggered all around, trying to make sense of what had happened. Mourning wails rose up from some huddling over their friends and family, murmurs of comfort came from others as they tried to help the wounded. The reek of woodsmoke hovered over all, but there was a horrific under-scent of fear, of burned hair, of a meat that should never be cooked.

Isolde spoke first: “Wasted no time in getting yourself to safety! Spent none of it on us, or those who died in there!”

The oracle shrugged. “Your collective fate was not to end so ignobly. That of the peasants, was. Had I said anything to them, they would have laughed it off. Then what? Would you have dragged them away from their cups at my say-so? Because of my vision? Too much of that around here already.”

Aidan snarled an unintelligible curse, the unique dichotomy of melody and harshness in his native Rhunsdhain expressing his feelings more justly than any other tongue he knew.

“You might have tried, Hells take you!” he spat back. “Even one life might have been saved had you tried! What use is prophesy if the evils it foretells cannot be averted? If the future is so utterly set in stone, there can be no value in knowing it. There can be no value to, no that’s wrong, no value in you!”

“I am but one jaded and tired old man,” the oracle acknowledged calmly. “Decades past, I tried to change what I foresaw. Too often, worse came of my actions than if I had left well enough alone. My successes were not inspiring and my failures became boring.”

“So you keep trying, again and again, until you can try no longer, and even then you do not stop!” Aidan pressed, a supportive murmur from Embla meaning more than any dozen of her words. “There is enough suffering in this world without adding to it through inaction! No surrender, no compromise! Fight to make things better, or pledge yourself to the darkness in the East, but do not dare to stand neutral and make excuses as if either side will spare you justice.”

For a few seconds, silence reigned between them. The priest paused in his ministrations, looking worriedly up at Aidan’s wrathful features, but then professionalism triumphed over concern. Expert fingers worked on the stone splinter that had been driven into Aidan’s thigh two days earlier, whilst soft words knit the flesh back together from artery to skin. A simple spell – for the wound itself was far less serious than the risk it posed if mistreated—and thankfully so, for he had many more patients to tend to, and he would need considerably stronger healing magic for them.

One of those was Embla, with her wolf bite, but she waved the priest off, and Aidan was too busy being furious to notice and overrule her. There would be time for her injury later. First, they had to determine if they had been travelling with an enemy, and if so, how to deal with him. In his current mood, even Aidan would struggle to grant any mercy save that of the grave.

Help on this score, surprisingly, came from Brokk. “Dwarf eyes see well in the dark, especially when the dwarf in question is laid out on his back, and the evening sky is lit with fire. There were shadows that did not belong there, winged shadows with eyes like sparks. They flew away when we four were all outside. ‘Too much vision around here already’, you said. You meant that literally, did you not?”

The oracle smiled, a hint of his former mad joy in it. “Of course. I loathe speaking prophesy, or truth, in riddles. You are cursed, and draw the attention of powers. Naturally, they will not come themselves to see you. But through servants? Oh yes. In this case, a skulk of spywings.”

♢♢♢♢♢

Spywings were not the only creatures that had been drawn. They were the most subservient, and most well known of the minions of evil, but in many respects they lacked the agency to be useful as anything other than a pair of eyes. Left to their own devices, their tendency to set things on fire for the fun of it was self-destructive, attracting the attention of rangers or druids seeking to defend against such wanton devastation.

The deformed reptilians clustered now, obedient and still, on the rotting branches of trees that did not yet know they were dead. Their master walked below in conversation with another, a strange and delightful other that had come from a distant land and spoke the Dark Speech with a soft and sensuous accent that they thrilled to hear.

This did not mean they were ignorant of their surroundings, however. A spywing was nothing if not observant, and there were dangers here to observe. An immense she-wolf was one of these, neither ally nor enemy, but a tool that could turn on its owner if not wielded properly. She crouched in a hollow nearby, reeking of a blacker magic than even their master possessed, and even the spywings’ infinite curiosity was tempered by knowledge of the painful, or even fatal, accidents that might befall them if they got too close.

There was also a thing that looked like a crow, bedraggled and sickly, perched alone on a rock. Several spywings had thought to torment it, back when they had still thought it a mere animal. The not-a-crow had taken its time, discussing the intricacies of its brutality in the unmistakable language of Barathus. After that, the spywings had contented themselves with watching it from a distance.

Besides, since their master had made no attempt to avenge them, it was likely that this was a guest representing an ally of the master’s. There were not many such allies. Weapons and tools and servants, yes, all variably useful but similarly expendable. True allies, however, were such a rarity that resisting the urge to find out more wracked even the most disciplined spywing with a physical discomfort so intense that it bordered on pain.

They had suffered much of this lately. Events were taking place that they were ignorant of, grand events to shake the very foundations of the world, and nobody told them anything. ‘Go here, watch these, report back, repeat’ – such were their unchanging orders every single day. The stress of it was starting to get to some of them. Lapses in judgement were a constant risk.

The human village they had been sent to earlier in the day, for example. Newcomers were easy enough to locate, especially ones that stood out quite so much—even if they had not been marked, or had travelled with that one. A simple assignment, like all of them. Then someone had spat out the tiniest flame. None of the spywings was entirely sure which of them it had been, or that it had not been themselves, but they were sure that nobody had refrained thereafter.

A rain of fire fell from their mouths onto the very old, very dry inn. It had taken less than a minute to start the blaze, which spread by itself most pleasingly. They danced overhead for a while, enjoying the screams—and that delightful scent of smoked manflesh, such a delicacy!—and then come to their senses.

That had not been part of their orders, and at the time they trembled to think of what their master would do to punish this initiative. For whatever reason though, they had been shown mercy. Perhaps their master was even secretly amused by it all. The spywings did not fool themselves overmuch—that good temper was far too uncharacteristic to be relied upon in the future.

Soon they would be sent out again. Some to watch over the she-wolf wherever she roamed. Some to accompany the master, or the delightful guest. Some just to scour Kelerak for anything interesting. Whatever their orders would be, the spywings would carry them out to the best of their ability. What else could they do? There was just so much to see!

♢♢♢♢♢

In her hollow, the dire wolf licked at her paws miserably, resisting the urge to bite down and tear at them as the pain in her throat grew. It was keeping her awake now. She had to fight to move her head, to swallow a drink of water, and it still burned her for all that she needed it.

She listened to the sounds that made her angry, hating how she kept being drawn back here. She did not know how she knew, but she did know that once she would have fled from this place with all haste. It was full of sounds and smells she hated. The chirping of those bitter-blooded lizards flying about above her was not the worst, though it was the most persistent.

There were two-feet not far from her, making meaningless noises at each other. One of these was the reason she kept returning to this place. It looked no different to any other two-feet she had ever seen, but smelled wrong. Its voice sounded wrong, too, and plucked at memories too vague to focus on. Memories from a time when she was as a cub, but not exactly—warm, pampered, loved, safe—and before she started to run with the packs.

Strange thoughts moved through her head when she came here. Meaningless noises of the two-feet became voices, not that she knew what that meant. The cub packs became wolf packs, olfari, separate from the true packs of hiid’olfari, the dire wolves that she belonged to. It was all so confusing. Confusion was good. She could not be angry when she was confused. The thirst-pain (dehydration? what?) lessened without anger.

The voices stopped and were replaced by the sound of a two-feet walking away. She stood, looking over the edge of the hollow. The viewpoint was strange, unsteady. It took a few seconds to realise she had leaned back on her hind legs, her front paws dangling in front of her like those of a two-feet. At once she dropped down to all fours, shaking.

This was unacceptable. Her confusion warred with her anger. Pain grew in her head and tightened around her throat like a collar. She fought the mounting terror, sensing she was losing, growing more enraged in her fear and defeat. Around and around and around she went, as if chasing her tail. A final strange thought came to her. Jaws opened and slammed shut, bloodying her paw at long last.

The incredible agony shattered the madness fogging her mind. Everything came back to her in a rush of terrible clarity, as if she had awoken from a nightmare. In a way, she had. With a howl, she turned and fled from the hollow. She knew the spywings would follow, to keep watch for Niklaus and maybe even Eilithu.

She could outrun them for a while. It would hurt, but she could do it. Whilst they searched, she could return to the humans from the south. They might be able to help. She hoped to reach them before she fell back into the wolf dream. If not, they might still give her the final mercy.

♢♢♢♢♢

Spywings would not bother to enter and attack a village,” Aidan continued to insist. “They flee into the wilds and stay there without a master to send them out. And what servant of the dark would bother with Fisherman’s Solace? Wyvernia. Dragonspur. East-of-Sky, even! Cities, man, cities are what attract intrigue and, and… ah, come on, what’s the word I’m looking for? Isolde?”

The halfling frowned, put on the spot. “Conspiracies?”

“That’ll do. Cities are what attract intrigue and conspiracies, not quiet little fishing villages far from anything important happening. Arden does not count, Brokk, before you say anything. That was a fully-fledged township with its own local lord, unlike this place. There is nobody here with that kind of ambition and influence.”

The oracle shook his head, though not in denial of the basic point. Isolde did the same, and it was this which convinced Aidan that his information on the political landscape of Kelerak was outdated. He braced himself to be educated, knowing it would be coming whether he liked it or not.

“Fisherman’s Solace is the largest settlement of the Sunmouth region,” Isolde began, both consulting the map and looking at the oracle for confirmation. “And thus it serves as the de facto administrative centre. Sunmouth has no baron of its own, but is a subsidiary responsibility of the seneschal of Jacob’s Rock.”

“Last time I was in Kelerak, there were reports of council motions to create a new barony of the Sunmouth. This would free up resources from Jacob’s Rock, which has an interest in developing The Fells, dragon rumours or no- and incidentally give whoever installed the new baron there a near-permanent ally in council. Barons Goldcrown and Danube were in support of this, as I recall. They have something of a dislike of the new nobility in the north. Insufficient heritage or some such nonsense. Having someone else on their side could start to swing things in their favour again.”

There was clearly a lot more in this vein, but Aidan cut off the explanation here before he blacked out. This sort of thing had always given him headaches, and he could never keep most of the information straight anyway, but he had caught the gist of it.

“So what you’re saying is that somebody from an actually important place might be trying to get more power by setting up a vassal in this village? And we’re caught in the middle? When we’re apparently cursed? With Brokk almost completely out of action—shush, you are and you know it!—and spywings trying to assassinate us?”

Isolde nodded, smiling happily at the prospect of good, honest plotting. “Welcome to Kelerak.”

♢♢♢♢♢

As he had foreseen them do, the half-elf’s impassioned words moved him. The foreknowledge of this in no way reduced the strength of the long-dormant feelings they had awakened in him, as had ever been the case in his long and tortured life. For the longest time, Tarsus had enjoyed the bliss of a shattered mind, peering only occasionally from behind his veil of madness. With each new horror, or an old one in disguise, he would retreat into insanity again until lured, often so very falsely, by a hint of virtue.

Tarsus had his back to the quartet, yet watched them nonetheless. The eyes of his flesh were sealed, but the eyes of his soul could never be closed—foreknowledge of every failed attempt to blind them had also done nothing to blunt his youthful desperation, and increasingly bloody methods—and now his prophetic gaze was fixed utterly upon the four friends.

Close to a century had passed since his birth. In all that time, only twice previously had he encountered any with an aura of destiny so turbulent as to blind his foresight to all else bar them. The first had been Dralin Ironshield, whose unrelenting quest to reclaim the long-lost dwarfhold of Liferock was yet decades in his future, and whose ultimate triumph or failure was shrouded even from Tarsus’ sight. The second had been Tarrosh, a Farlandish oluk who would have been wholly unremarkable had she not loved another enough to abandon the armies of the Lord of Wrath for him, and in time raise their son to become the infamous Tamarrik the Reaver.

Of all the gods, only Janora, the Lady of Fate, was ever graced with his prayers. Destiny was inexorable, he had learned, as mighty as a raging torrent as compared to a leaf. The foolish might try to dam or divert the flow, only to find that their destiny could not be so easily averted, and merely took the path of least resistance to course ever onward, dragging the presumptuous to their fate.

Yet now he waited, as foolish and as presumptuous as any he had ever known, to renew his defiance against the undeniable. Tarsus had seen this inevitability, of course, within moments of the four travellers seeking shelter in the same cave as he, and knew the outcome. His laughter, so maddening to them, was but a symptom of knowing he was doomed to fail here as well, but helpless to avoid it.

The moment approached. He was surprised to feel calmer than he had any right to be, and could not help but laugh, for naturally he already knew both of his surprise and his calm. The moment arrived. He opened his mouth to speak the words that would fail to divert the course of fate’s river.

And then, drawn by his inhalation, a stray wisp of ash slipped into his nostrils. Unluckily, Tarsus sneezed with enough force to crack his forehead against his staff. The visions that ruled him disappeared into a mental storm, shattered by the thunder of howling wolves and splintered by the lightning of flashing teeth. His inner eyes closed against this tempest and blindness within and without fell over the shocked oracle.

“She comes,” he whispered to himself in understanding. “The blood of Myrkhegnan has spilled itself once more. So Niklaus at least yet lives. Let it be no other also.”

♢♢♢♢♢

SECOND INTERLUDE

c.8500 ER, Sky-Altar of the Midnight Sun, Balathil Mountains

The ground shook under the pounding of many feet, the air hummed with the cries of many throats. The tribe were dancing their dances, and singing their songs, and loving their lovers, all to placate the invisible spirits of the world that might wish them harm, and to honour their ancestors who protected them from evil. In this place, where once they had witnessed a great and terrible omen, they danced and they sang and they loved freely.

Though at the heart of their number, one stood apart from the rest, as his firstborn fathers and mothers had before him. He was the Myrkhegnan, the Champion of the Dark, whose newborn eyes had been turned to the sun that they might never see a lesser beauty again.

In his arms, the squalling infant reached blindly out for comfort, as he had once done. It was a female, which boded well, for some said there had been too few of these as Myrkhegnan of late, and the ancestor mothers were becoming angered and malicious by the lack of respect. He was not sure but had bidden the tribe to come here again when his child was born, that they might be shown the light where it all began, and perhaps then end the anger of the spirits. His wives had argued, as was their way, annoying him such that he had left behind all but his favourite and most obedient, and soon a child was growing in her belly.

Hunger and sickness tormented the tribe. They had scarcely the strength to climb the mountains to reach the sacred ground, but they did so at his command. He had not spoken to them of the whispers in his dreams, for it was not theirs to know such things, but the messages troubled him. Did the ancestor mothers truly have such spite in their hearts over the few female Myrkhegnan that they were acting as cruelly as the evil spirits they ought to fight? He wondered, and doubted, but more and more became sure this was the way of things. As his surety grew, so did the whispers in his dreams.

Around him, the tribe’s worship reached its crescendo. The spirits would enjoy the display, of course, but eventually grow bored and send more evil to torment the tribe. It was a grim duty, to be Myrkhegnan, to be responsible for interpreting the omens and portents, and guiding the tribe away from those things that would anger the spirits and bring down suffering.

And yet, those dreams were unlike any others. He stood alone in emptiness, atop these mountains, with the sun turned black overhead. He could see with the eyes of his body, and knew not how, and figures would approach from all around, never more than one appearing at a time. They looked different from each other in every way, but somehow they were the same.

No wisdom had been passed to him about such dreams, so that meant they were new. They whispered secrets that could not be true, but he still thought of what had been said to him. More and more, he found himself understanding that he had been mistaken, as had his fathers and mothers before him. His thoughts whirled faster and faster.

Did not the spirits continue to send evil down onto the tribe, despite the dances and despite the songs meant to avert harm? And did not the wisdom and power of a Myrkhegnan come from the spirit world, from the ancestors, who now seem as cruel as the rest? So might not the spirits twist a Myrkhegnan into advising the tribe falsely, that they might continue to enjoy the spectacle of their ignorant playthings? Yet surely not all were so malicious, surely at least some of the honour and dutifulness of the past Myrkhegnan must remain?

Startled, joyful, terrified cries from about him brought his thoughts back to the world of flesh. He turned his face to the sky, feeling the warmth of the sun. Then he felt a coldness pass over it and could hear the tribe babble about the sudden darkness that had fallen, though nightfall ought yet be further away than the dawn.

The Myrkhegnan thought over everything carefully. This was a grand omen, a sign doubtless the same as had birthed the very first Myrkhegnan. In fact, it could only be a sign from those revered ancestors. Though deceived, they must have kept their sense of duty to the tribe and sent him this message in dreams, and now here with the darkening of the sun. To protect the tribe from the spirits, the line of the Myrkhegnan must end.

He smiled at this revelation. He continued to smile as his knife, knapped from the very finest flint, tasted the blood of his daughter, and his wife by his side. He was still smiling as the tribe seized him, roaring and shrieking at the atrocity, and tore him apart as if they were wolves and he a deer. As he died, the soft laughter of a woman echoed in his head.

♢♢♢♢♢

c.5800 FR, Murrhagen Heights, Stonewall Mountains

Freki Hildesdottir hated this stupid place on sight. She was of the ancient Olfsblod, and belonged in the Wolf Dens far to the north of here. Her parents had insisted, however, as had theirs before them, going back to a time before Anaria had been settled by any human peoples, even the noble Wolf Tribe. It probably had something to do with their earliest ancestors, who were said to have come from this region, but her opinion was ‘Who cares? Who cares that matters?’

And for what impossibly important reason had she been forced to trudge nearly all the way through the ruins of Lorindon to reach this uninspiring plateau? To watch an eclipse, of all things, as though this was somehow relevant to anything! What made this one so special anyway? It was just her luck to be the oldest and have to make this stupid pilgrimage. She would much rather be out hunting, perhaps with Asvald.

A brief smile broke through her disgusted expression. Perhaps she meant hunting for Asvald. He would be quite the prize, especially since so few others knew it. Hodolf was stronger and faster, and Grimvar a better singer and dancer, and by any measure Erikur was more attractive…but Asvald could look at her eyes, not just her breasts or her hips (though she certainly did not mind the weight of his stare on them), and would never complain about a job that needed doing, and always offered to help anyone who seemed to need it.

And there was the incredibly cute way he blushed the colour of his boyish beard whenever she offered to really show him how to polish his spear. Freki doubted he had any clearer idea of what that meant than she did, but both understood it was ‘not a proper thing to say’ and possibly had something to do with marriage.

Not that either of their families would agree to that. She was already promised, as tribute in all but name, to the bloated warlord Leif of the Bear Tribe—whose sons, even she knew, were far more responsible for his victories in battle than ever he could be—and Asvar himself was being eyed up by the local druids as a potential ranger.

Her good mood spoiled and, sulking like a child far younger than her fifteen years, she threw herself down to wait for the stupid eclipse to be over. Instantly she bit back a cry of pain and looked at her hand. A large shard of flint, very out of place in this particular part of the mountains and strangely marked with dark streaks, had cut into her palm as she leaned on it. Freki glared at the shard and kicked it away.

When she looked back up, a staggeringly beautiful woman was standing only a few feet away, garbed in a faint golden haze and ethereal silks that left just enough to the imagination, watching her with several kinds of interest. Freki’s breath caught in her throat and not wholly from surprise, but she forced herself to stand and meet the woman’s brilliant emerald eyes with no sign of fear.

“Who are you?” she demanded, intent on putting the stranger on the defensive.

“I have as many names as there are languages, sweetness,” the otherworldly woman replied with a knowing smile that quickened Freki’s pulse. “Maughaeran to the swan-lovers of Belendale, Kihirrel to the sturdy dwarves of Mithaud. Lashannar was my name in long-dead Rothnog. Hlarthaquel do the gnomes call me, and She-Who-Dances is how they remember me in Farland. The enthusiastic sons of Keler knew me as Lilith. But for you, I will go by Eilithu.”

“Eilithu?” Freki rolled the word around hesitantly, feeling the sound it made, unfamiliar yet exotically pleasing. She felt her mind consider going places she had not previously considered, and found she did not want to push the thoughts aside. The woman’s eyes were not green, she saw now, nor even human, but that did not matter. Their infinite blackness pushed aside Freki’s defences and plunged deep into her, twisting and boring through the most secret recesses of her being—a violation of indescribable ecstasy that Freki wished would never end.

“Indeed,” said the succubus, shedding the rest of her human disguise and drawing the Anarian into her embrace. “Now, tell me all about your dear Asvar and I will tell you… oh, so very many things. I owe you so very much, after all. My dearest, my precious, my new Champion of the Dark, whose blood at last let me into this world once more. I wonder… do your lips taste so sweet as your veins? I will sample both.”

As the succubus bent her head, Freki cried out, the pain and pleasure mingling and becoming indistinguishable.

♢♢♢♢♢

7793 FR, Lostein, Anaria

Niklaus belonged to the Elk Tribe, and she to the Wolf, but Asta loved him nonetheless. One day they would wed, and build their own lodge, and have many fine children and hounds playing by the hearth. How many times had she argued bitterly with her father over this, and fled weeping with rage to her rooms?

“He is not for you and you are not for the likes of him,” her father would say, his anger all the fiercer for his soft speech. “You are a wolf girl, and are meant for better men than an elf-shot whelp. You are daughter of a jarl and will one day rule your people from Hildolfar itself. Your marriage must be one to a man who is your equal, and whose family is our equal. Let Niklaus seek his wife in his books, and let his family continue to wither as an oak choked by ivy.”

But then later he would come to her, and hold her tightly, and kiss her upon the nose as he had when she was a little girl, and she would remember how much he loved her. Asta could not bear the future he wanted for her, though, as wondrous as he made it sound, for it was a future without Niklaus at her side.

On her thirteenth birthday, a merchant caravan arrived with luxuries from Kelerak, one of the few permitted to enter Anaria each year—though others always tried, greedy and hopeful, and usually short-lived thereafter—and in a rare moment of being unobserved, she had managed to exchange a few words with the traders. They had spoken fondly of their wives and husbands back home, whom they had chosen for themselves and not because their families had wished the union.

Asta knew immediately what she must do. That very night, she fled her family’s longhouse, mercilessly bullying two of her handmaidens into taking her to the territory border between the Wolf and Elk tribes. A commoner would have been caught long before reaching her destination, but Asta was no commoner. She was a wolf girl! She could ride hard and ride well, and the jarl’s horses were among the finest in all the stables.

By dawn, she had reached Samsen. By noon, she was being ferried across the Elk Lake to Kattenholt, where one of Niklaus’ uncles lived. The old man was an elf-shot fool like his nephew, chattering about places and persons of no meaning to Asta, all of which he had learned about from books and scrolls, but he was sympathetic to their love and was almost wolf-cunning, despite everything else... and being of the Elk, besides!

When her father finally caught up with her, Asta and Niklaus had already married. Violence had been threatened, but her new family proved itself far less weak, and vastly larger, than it had previously been thought. Indeed, with first cousins alone they could field nearly five times the warriors (though admittedly not so well-equipped or skilled) as could her father, and combined had influence enough to equal the jarl in council, or even outmatch him if they called in favours owed from the Bear and Seal Tribes, which Niklaus had personally assured Asta’s father would happen if the matter was pressed. For some years thereafter, and in spite of the rift between her and her father, life had been practically idyllic for Asta.

Then she had found out the source of her new family’s fecundity and influence. Niklaus, as with most of his relatives and their allies across all the tribes, was not devoted to the totem spirits of the Anarians, but instead venerated the southern god Vornoth and the dread Lords of Sin that had conquered most of the world. Niklaus himself was proving to be one of the most capable demoniacs the family had produced for generations, and had progressed so far in his unholy studies as to begin communing with a patron entity from some Hell or another.

Even so, his love for Asta was unfeigned, and when Asta walked in on one such session, it had been by his design, that she might join him in his perverse faith. She had tried to flee, of course, only to be bound and dragged back to him by unseen hands, again and again and again.

Finally, Niklaus advanced far enough to complete a summoning ritual and, still seeking to convince Asta as to the rightness of his ways, used her blood as one of its components to attract a demon more closely magically aligned to her. The succubus that appeared had seemed especially delighted, even amused by the turn of events, but Asta proved to have a stronger will than her long-dead ancestor Freki.

“You want to return to your wolf pack, my love, so go and do so,” Niklaus had finally said, saddened and enraged at the same time. “Eilithu, as we agreed. You want her as badly as I do, but ordinarily you have more time than we. That will change too, yes? Good. So be it.”

And Asta was set free. Her resilient will was not so strong as to survive the transformation intact, but enough was left to make the punishment less terrible than it would otherwise have been. A dream almost, not quite, but nearly. A wolf dream, for a wolf girl.

♢♢♢♢♢

The smell of human and fish grew stronger as she ran, in circles some times and straight some others, with the tireless speed of the wolf, drawing ever nearer to Fisherman’s Solace. Memories flashed behind her eyes as quick as lightning, some nearly blinding in their intensity, and all confusing and terrifying to she who had once been a wolf girl destined for the great halls of Hildolf.

The spywings had been left long behind. They were smarter than most gave them credit for but could not predict the erratic movements of their prey, and so Asta eluded them by not thinking about where or how she fled. Doing so was agony unlike any other. Each breath was a razor hurricane in her throat. Bloodied spit clogged her nostrils and crusted around her eyes. Every dehydrated and hypertense muscle would have screamed at the effort she forced them to perform, had they energy to spare.

The wolf had a keen understanding of pain, but was harder and fiercer than the girl. To the wolf, inescapable pain was a thing that could almost be ignored, especially with anger. To the girl, even one raised to dominate in the harsh land of Anaria, inescapable pain was a terror reserved to stories of evildoers receiving divine comeuppance in the afterlife.

Nonetheless, she embraced the pain. The pain kept her Asta, jarl’s daughter of the Hildolfar, wolf girl of Lostein—not the Fleet, not the Strongjaw, not she of many packs. She kept running, drawing ever nearer to Fisherman’s Solace and the humans from the south, who might kill her instead of save her.

She had no choice. There was something important about the newcomers, something she could not place exactly. It was in the memory of their smell, their taste—how did she know their taste? Did she want to know? —and it was so close that she felt she could almost reach out and grab it, had she still hands instead of paws. It had to do with a sense of great age and....

The almost-understanding vanished with the first screams as she rushed headlong into the village, Kelerite fisherfolk scattering in all directions in panic at the sight of her. Several were frozen where they stood, one large gathering of four or five turning in place and in shock to see her, and Asta’s blurring vision inexplicably skipped over them to a different prey, a young woman no more than a few years older than she had been when Niklaus’ true self was revealed to her.

For the briefest moment, Asta thought she saw more hate than fear in the other’s eyes, and as simply as that, her pain began to fade away under an overwhelming surge of anger. The wolf dream from which she had awakened started creeping closer, becoming bolder with every heartbeat. Valiantly, she fought against it. The fear fed her fury, which dulled her pain, which strengthened the wolf, which frightened her, and so the loop went.

Two seconds, perhaps three, after their eyes met, contact was broken. Both women fell back, too terrified even to scream, as the monstrous dire wolf bore down upon them, one in the mind, one in the flesh. And from some far-off reality of no consequence, the wolf heard an elven battlecry being sung out.

♢♢♢♢♢

As he sprinted forward, a pair of startled grunts and heavy footfalls behind him told Aidan that Embla had picked up Isolde and Brokk, and was busy getting them out of the way. The oracle could look after himself as far as Aidan was concerned—not the most charitable of attitudes, but Aidan was just honest enough about his flaws to acknowledge this pettiness—and besides, there was one who was far more vulnerable right now.

The dire wolf crossed the distance to its screaming victim in a heartbeat, murderous jaws snapping shut on the eel-basket in her hands and ripping it from them, sending its squirming contents in all directions. Still scant feet away, Aidan knew there was no time to think, or to ready weapon for a ‘proper’ battle, as the bards might tell it. Instead, he slammed into the wolf with all the force he could muster and went rolling in mud and blood and eels. His spine creaked in protest as the two came to a stop, the half-elf on the underside of the melee, and the shaft of his warhammer pressing into his back.

His first instinct was to struggle to his feet, but his warrior instinct overruled this stupidity. For one thing, his legs were pinned beneath the weight of the raging beast; and for another, he knew himself to be far less agile and ferocious a fighter than this enemy, even if he had not been so tired from the long journey and his recent injuries. His hands closed over the wolf’s head, one tightening around the throat, the other trying to gouge at the eyes.

On most creatures, even one so intelligent and cunning as this, this tactic would have worked. But the wolf dream had been shaken off for a time, and had not yet clamped down on everything that the wolf girl knew. Anarian wrestling was not a common lesson for its chieftains (the Bear Tribe excepted, and they excelled in the martial art) but even a child knew the rudiments from watching contests and displays of skill at festivals... rudiments such as how to escape a grapple.

Aidan felt his grip weaken as the dire wolf shifted its weight, raising its hindquarters up and twisting them to allow it to plant its hind legs on either side of him. Bracing on them, it pulled at its front half and slipped away from the paladin’s just-not-strong-enough grasp. Desperately, he tried to respond by seizing its ears instead, hoping their sensitivity could be leveraged to his advantage. They were already flat against the skull, impossible to catch hold of in the instant he had available, and by the time his brain had realised this, the massive head was free. Now Aidan was the one on his back, wolf standing over him, one paw pressed into his throat in a darkly amusing parody of a wrestler’s hold.

Aidan saw death waiting as the monstrous jaws widened. Then they slammed shut again as a knife flew out of nowhere, its hilt striking the wolf just behind the left eye, momentarily dazing the beast. A very distinct hositan voice followed in complaint: “The one time I don't want it to spin…” and deep inside his thoughts, he allowed himself a laugh. It seemed about time that Isolde had her own share of bad luck!

As amusing as that was, he did not have the luxury of enjoying it. Instead, he clapped his knees to the wolf’s flanks and heaved upwards, and at the same moment took hold of its front legs and pulled forward mightily. With a confused yelp, the dire wolf flew over his head.

Now he obeyed his instinct to stand. Without undue haste, forcing his fingers to work as they ought, he loosed his warhammer from his back, silently thanking Embla for the suggestion. After their first encounter with this creature, when he had embarrassingly left his weapon in the back of the cart, she had advised him on the way of the Erunian warrior of carrying such a heavy item—which was broadly the same as the nomad avengers of old Wawmar, or even the lost colonies of the Sarumvest – but was markedly superior to the lessons he had learned in Zeland’s secret temples.

To be fair, they had suffered from a dearth of warriors and had to teach from manuals and apprentice scrips, and they were not afraid to admit their ignorance in matters of actual combat. Now, one of the earliest and most important catechisms he had been taught came back to Aidan: the greatest techniques are learned by the survivors.

This confrontation had so far lasted less than half a minute. Embla was still receding, Brokk under one arm, Isolde mostly wriggled loose from the other... and with another of her many daggers already in hand. The Kelerites were still in a state of pandemonium. But in that short time, Aidan had already realised he was up against more than an ordinary dire wolf, rabid or otherwise.

It moved unlike any deranged predator ought to. It had broken free of his grapple. It battled on a level greater than mere instinct, but used technique and skill scarcely inferior to his own and adapted to his fighting style. It was a survivor. Even as a paladin, his spirit armoured against fear and terror, Aidan felt that cold touch in his heart. He was merely incapable of giving in to it, no matter how much he might want to.

“Come on then,” he hissed at the dire wolf, its footing already regained. “Come on so that I may send you back to whichever Hell you crawled from.”

The dire wolf cocked its head, almost as if in understanding. Their eyes met. In those of the beast, there was pain and confusion and anger, but the pain was lessening by the moment. An intelligence as keen as Aidan’s own looked him up and down, judging him as he judged it. They took the first step forward at the same time, and the second, and the third, and all those after that.

Perhaps this would please any bard who hears the tale, Aidan thought as their melee resumed.

♢♢♢♢♢

With one final heroic effort, Isolde slipped from Embla’s arm, twisting like a cat to land on her feet. An exasperated shout of “Bhunbaskir villtri, arratti!” followed her, which the hositan guessed meant something similar to ‘You suicidal halfling idiot’, but dismissed it. She had heard worse in her time, not least from her family when last she had seen them. The pain of that exchange was thrust aside almost as soon as it stirred in her heart. Thinking of that would be far too distracting over a campfire, never mind a true battle.

She rushed forward, eyes fixed on Aidan and the pattern of his movements, rather than on the terrible wolf. The pair were dancing around an ever-shifting central point, muscle and sinew straining to outdo the other. On paper, Aidan was the greater combatant, skilful and enduring enough to overcome such a beast. On the battlefield, the dire wolf was vastly more dangerous, superior in body and with a mind no less keen than Aidan’s own.

Only now, watching the beast dodge and feint, luring the warhammer away and snapping at the exposed wrists holding the weapon, did Isolde reach the same realisation as her friend. This was no ordinary dire wolf, but something more. The acrobatic tactic she had intended to make use of, a staple of her gutter runner days, suddenly seemed an incredibly unsuitable one.

Unfortunately, her body moved quicker than her thoughts. By the time her brain had processed an alternative means of attack, her head and torso were already tucking into a roll to the right of Aidan’s legs an instant after he stepped to the left. The dire wolf, already turning to face him, had its flank completely exposed to her. Against a normal enemy, she would have been able to score both daggers along its ribs and belly, escape its agonised counter-attack, and complete her roll all in the space of a few seconds.

On paper, this would have seemed an eminently reasonable course of action. The ideal one, in fact, since she was no endurance fighter to stand face-to-face with an opponent three times her size (and damn near six times her weight in raw muscle and bone). On the battlefield, however, this proved a mistaken theory.

Two shining blades curved up as the halfling passed by her enemy. They bit into thin air as the dire wolf used its turning momentum to bounce backwards and away. Its rage was sharpening the senses already honed by experience, and the attempted acrobatics had not come as a surprise. A blood-mad eye glared down at Isolde and her daggers, abominably human in wordless mockery. Over twenty darker blades descended and twenty more rose to meet them, but these did not bite air.

There followed a metallic crunch, and a light rain of steel splinters and blood-flecked saliva fell to the earth. Even daggers forged from steel worthy of oluk legionnaires proved inferior to the fangs of a cursed dire wolf. Their hilts, useless now save as scrap, followed the splinters.

A paw slightly larger than Isolde’s head reached out, almost languidly it seemed to the horror-struck halfling, towards her. For the first five or six seconds after impact, the world turned inside out and flowered into a thousand wondrous colours she had never even imagined. There was merely a profound numbness in place of the expected pain. Then it erupted in her jaw and behind her eyes, a ringing in her ears like the bells of a Davenian cathedral deafening her to the world.

In the back of her mind, Isolde knew that the sudden coldness sweeping over her was a shadow, a shadow of impeding death cast by some great and unknowable terror blotting out the rising sun. That was irrelevant. It was almost pleasant, in fact, the chill. Relaxing, when you got right down to it, soothing, peaceful. The incessant ringing in her ears was more a lullaby.

Fighting was hot work, and she was still overheated from the night’s exertions of trying to save people from the burning inn. A rest was not unreasonable thing to have right now. Her eyes were already closed. Why not just go to sleep? Let someone else deal with… whatever… thing it was that needed dealing with. A good plan. Isolde liked those, and so set sail on the sea of dreams.

♢♢♢♢♢

It was perhaps only thirty seconds after he was violently plucked from the ground and carried off, feeling much like a sack of overripe turnips, that a very startled Brokk was set back down somewhat more gently. His head spun a little, his vision blurred and steadying only slowly, but there was no mistaking the sight of Embla sprinting into battle after that slippery halfling friend of theirs.

Similarly unmistakable was Isolde's predicament, as her stunned body bounced to a stop with the splash of blood on her temple, the dire wolf already moving in for the kill. Brokk heard a throaty rumble halfway between a growl and a roar escape the beast as it opened its jaws wide around Isolde's head.

When it let out a confused yelp and suddenly hurtled past the fallen Isolde, all four paws off the ground, Brokk corrected himself: he heard a throaty rumble halfway between a growl and a roar escape Embla. She had been going too fast to stop and simply collided with the dire wolf, with her considerable bulk easily knocking it off-balance for the second such ignominious time. The immediate mortal danger having passed, she crouched protectively over Isolde, drawing a sword nearly as large as the halfling and snarling incomprehensible words in her own language.

As the dire wolf scrabbled back upright, Aidan tried to close the distance between them, just a second too late to strike at his foe. The terrible jaws did now close over a head, but it was a head of Gemullean steel set atop a neck of fire-hardened Anarian ironwood. There was no finer example of the smith's art in Fisherman's Solace... any more than there had been in Arden, or Tanner's Rest, or Mavarra. Aidan gripped his warhammer all the more tightly as the dire wolf pulled at it with short sharp jerks of terrifying force, threatening to disarm him.

To the untrained eye, the battle had now passed beyond stalemate, when in fact it had only just reached this point. Brokk could see that if Embla moved closer, hoping to strike at the dire wolf's exposed flank, it would simply end its contest with Aidan and dart around to savage Isolde before anyone could save her. Similarly, even if Aidan pulled his weapon free, it would leave him momentarily off-balance and thus just as vulnerable as at the start of battle. As things stood, in fact, this stalemate was a marked improvement over either their first storm-lashed meeting with this enemy, or even the way that this encounter had started!

So far, the only one of them who had not yet been tested against the dire wolf was Brokk himself. Mere weeks ago, he would not have hesitated to unleash a storm of his own, a storm of fire and ice and thunder that might shatter fortress walls and lay waste to entire city districts if not controlled and directed by his will.

He was not the wizard he had been mere weeks ago, however. The powers he had drawn upon to destroy the monstrous artifact hidden beneath Arden, powers drawn out of said artifact, had hollowed him. ‘Hollowed', yes indeed, was the most appropriate word for how he felt in his waking hours.

Once he had known what it was to be young, even in those forgotten days after crawling from the wreckage of his hold, ten thousand accusing voices of dead dwarves at his back, his body shrivelling under the weight of accumulating centuries beyond any dwarven lifespan, his ambition and pride blasted to oblivion by the relic he had sought to cheat of its secrets.

Once, but no more. Now he felt every day of his extreme age. Exhaustion plagued him, seemingly irremovable by either rest or any spell he knew. His grasp of magic fluctuated more erratically than gnomish opinion, and some days he did not even feel able to cast the simplest of cantrips.

It was the third great wound he had suffered. The first he had almost learned to live with, and he took a measure of solace from his continued study of the relic that had punished his arrogance so long ago. The second, received in the catacombs below Mavarra (and still he could hear the Flayer's laughter in his dreams!), had only just started to scab over. Brokk did not know how many more such injuries he could take before one became fatal.

♢♢♢♢♢

“You will be the one to set her free.” Brokk jumped, startled out of his bleak thoughts by the oracle's pronouncement, the true ring of prophecy in his voice. “The wolf girl has fled before and beneath a dream, a wolf dream. Yet she is not your enemy, nor even the wolf dream, but another. It is there, hidden from both, the spawn of hate and lust conjoined.”

For some seconds, the dwarf stared in silence, fighting against the urge to ask questions that would lead to useless answers, or worse, to answers that could distract from understanding. Then he knew that there was only one question he needed to ask.

“What must I do to set her free?”

“The fiend must be cast out from them. She and she and she must be made separate, not Three-Who-Are-One. With one gone, the two can rest at last. The wolf dream will end. The wolf girl will awaken forever. You must cast out the fiend, send it to the Hell it belongs to. You will see how to do this. The stone will show you.”

Brokk understood what he was being asked to do. He understood that this might be the next great wound he would have to suffer, perhaps the last he would be able to suffer. Carefully, his every joint creaking and aching, he knelt down and scraped a rune in the dirt. It was one that had many meanings, depending on the context, and in its position relative to others when scribed or carved. On its own, however, it had but a single meaning: self-sacrifice.

He reached into his greatcoat, into the only pocket that mattered, and brought out the stone tablet within. He placed it atop his improvised rune and ran his hand gently over its timeless surface. The words it bore, their meaning older than the world itself, would have shone with some mystical glow in a bard's tale, a memory of the pure light that gave birth to the gods who made it. In real life, they stayed exactly as they were. Relic from the dawn of time or not, it was still just stone, and stone was not given to such theatrics.

Yet this stone, at least, was given to other things. Certainly things like the concept of fairness, on behalf of which it had barely permitted Brokk to survive the backlash that had annihilated his hold, and perhaps more? He did not know. He did hope, however, and hope was a thing to be cherished.

Brokk felt not in the least bit idiotic as he addressed the tablet: “My friends need me. I cannot help them without you. Exact your price on me, tenfold and more if you must, but lend me what they need. Please. Do not let me once more fail those I love.”

He closed his eyes and leaned forward, completing his prostration by touching his forehead to the tablet. He knew the spell he needed, or at least the underlying theory of what it entailed. In its classical form, it required the spellcaster to present an item that was inimical to the target. With such a vague descriptor of what the target actually was, Brokk would need to present something more esoteric as part of the abjuration and simply hope that that would be sufficient.

Long ago, he had learned what it meant to hate oneself more keenly than any other thing, to loathe the insatiable lust for knowledge that had brought about his fall from grace. Hardly akin to the ‘spawn of hate and lust conjoined’ that he been told he was supposed to banish, but it had given him an idea as to what sufficiently esoteric thing he would use. Even the most uninspired bard would be disgusted if they had shared his thoughts. Friendship and love? May as well try to duel the Dark Walker with happy thoughts and a cheerful attitude!

Kneeling there, furious combat raging so close by, Brokk felt the turbulence of his thoughts settle. Words appeared in his mind with the warm feeling of sun after a thunderstorm. What worry he had that the magic would be beyond him melted away, and he started to speak the words. Beneath his head, the ancient stone tablet shuddered once, almost imperceptibly, but it was enough to let him know it, or whatever benevolent god still kept a watch over it, had accepted his plea.

Brokk knew he was smiling as the ritual gathered power. It was not exactly professional, but very few parts of his adult life could be considered model examples of wizardly behaviour. His friends were before him, their lives in his hands and in his speech, and he owed them everything that had been good since his fall. Even Isolde would never dream of collecting this debt, which made him all the more willing to repay it now.

His aches were gone. His weariness was gone. He sat upright and felt young again—no, for this moment, he was young again, with that spark in his eyes and that sheen in his beard (his beard? Ah, how he had missed that staple of dwarvendom!) that he had been without for years. The last syllable passed through his lips. Light from another world burst out from his eyes, carrying with it Brokk's love for his friends, leaping the gap between him and the monster in dire wolf form that menaced them.

Then he was the Brokk of today again, and exhaustion rose up to claim him once more. His sight remained clear long enough to see the light strike envelope the dire wolf and sink into its body. He did not see it release its hold on Aidan's warhammer, or the half-elf nearly fall backwards in shock as the beast began to convulse violently, its flesh warping and bulging as some tremendous battle raged just beneath the surface. By then, he was already unconscious.

♢♢♢♢♢

Aidan and Embla were warriors experienced enough to keep track of their surroundings and maintain a heightened awareness of their position relative to everyone and everything else at a glance. They understood that the sudden burst of light must have come from Brokk, but it was no spell they had ever seen from him before, and his lack of any warning cry or further advice meant that he must have collapsed after casting it.

Whatever he had done, it was a frightening display. For nearly a minute, the dire wolf contorted and writhed impossibly. Spasms wracked its flesh, occasionally tearing a bloodless hole from which a dark light oozed into the air. A trio of voices came from its throat, only one of which belonged to the terrified animal itself.

The others were engaged in a violent argument across a dozen languages, the softer of the two always reverting to a faintly musical speech that somehow reminded Aidan and Embla of their own languages as well as each other's. There was a subtle harshness in some syllables that made the inherent musicality similar to Rhunsdhain, but the rhythm of the language and even whole words felt far closer to Embla's own speech than to Aidan's.

It was an analysis the pair did not have long to perform. As quickly as it had started, the dire wolf stopped its involuntary spasms. One second passed, two, three, and four. Then it exploded into a hail of fur and bone and flesh. A sphere of golden light hovered above the remains, an airborne cage for a nightmare horror of red eyes and black tentacles that still raged in a dozen languages, its tone now more fearful than hateful as the banishment neared completion.

The sphere brightened, contracted, and faded from existence, taking its prisoner with it to whichever Hell was responsible for it. As its afterglow faded, the image of an ethereal barbarian girl became visible. Tears of unbridled joy wound their way down her cheeks as she laughingly, disbelievingly, examined her human shape.

Asta endrem! Asta endrem! her softer, musical yet mighty voice called out. Niklaus! Bifask, Niklaus Hofvarilli, thuvi Asta Hildolfmeyla leidha dir! Bifask!

Uttering a savage howl that would have made a true wolf proud, the ghost of Asta, freed at last from her cursed prison of lupine flesh, rose into the sky and vanished. Dumbstruck by this sequence of events, those watching very nearly missed the final performance. Brokk might have warned them, but he could not. With the fiendish entity that had bound Asta into wolf form departed, and Asta herself divided from the wolf dream that had been her unnaturally extended life for over three centuries, the last portion of this triad was also given liberty—the liberty to pursue a life free of fiend and Asta both.

The mangled flesh of its earthly form twitched and pulsed. Bones knit themselves back together. Blood trickling into the earth flowed back into the meat. The last rent in the skin healed over. An eyelid flicked open, then another. Three hundred years of experiences settled themselves into memory. A very tired, very confused dire wolf picked herself up and looked around with eye and ear and nose.

There were many two-feet around her, and smoke-scent. Also water. This was important. She was very thirsty. She did not have any pain. She remembered that there had been a lot of pain. This was good. But there were still many two-feet, and smoke-scent. There was water in the hills. There was water in the forests. She knew them all. She did not need to fight two-feet to drink water.

Two-feet did not taste good, anyway. She showed her teeth at the nearest two-feet, to show she was strong. One was a very big two-feet with a very big not-claw and was standing over a very small two-feet. Maybe a cub. A mother protecting a cub? Definitely important to not fight that if she did not need to!

The two-feet were smart. They did not move closer. She walked away from them, ears watching just in case. The hills were close. Water and shade would be there. Something else too, she did not yet know. It was in the future. A thought she did not understand exactly. The thought was a gift, a comfortable thing she also did not understand exactly. Memories from the two-feet cub dream, perhaps. The future would be good if she made it good.

She was intelligent enough to understand that.

♢♢♢♢♢

As soon as the dire wolf loped out of the village, Embla bent down to pick up Isolde, who was trying to sleep talk through a growing puffiness around her jaw, and Aidan rushed over to where Brokk lay unmoving. The dwarf's breathing was shallow and laboured, a terrible rattling in his throat telling of the strain it was to pull in enough air to keep him going. For a few seconds more he struggled, then stopped and lay still.

Silently, horrified, already numb with growing grief, Aidan looked at the stone tablet that Brokk had been carrying him since before they met, and when he picked it up, wondered at the meaning of the scuffed rune it had been placed over. He barked a pained, humourless laugh as Embla joined him.

“I always warned him his obsession would be the end of him. I never thought it would be the thing to save us at the same time.”

The paladin's voice cracked at the last, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. Embla looked down at him with a deep sniff, expression unreadable, and then laid Isolde in his arms.

“We must look to the living, Aidan,” she said firmly. “They need our help more than the dead.”

The words were so callous in their truthfulness that Aidan's tears stopped almost before they began, and he bit back the rising anger. It was a coping strategy he had seen before, and been on the receiving end of, and it was only bearable now because Embla was the one to use it on him. She was, as with Isolde and Brokk (no, not Brokk any longer, just Isolde), more dear to him than the last well-meaning fool to turn his grief into rage.
But then....

As he controlled himself, and automatically began to check Isolde's injuries, he noticed Embla massaging Brokk's throat with one hand and pushing his chest roughly with the other, grumbling at him. There was something odd about her timing that Aidan could not immediately grasp, until he realised that you could set a metronome to her precision. After a few seconds of this bizarre behaviour, the towering Erunian picked up Brokk and held him close, her mouth by his ear.

“This is nothing personal,” Aidan heard her say, then her teeth closed on the dwarf's ear.

The body convulsed so violently that its legs nearly took Aidan's head off. What baffled him then was the way the legs kept thrashing, and the arms wriggled futilely in Embla's grip… and the roar of agony that came from its throat as she bit down harder still.

When Embla pulled her head back, mouth bloody, the roar dwindled to a pained moan. His eyes wide and staring, his breathing still laboured but nowhere nearly so shallow as it had been, Brokk looked around him in confusion. Despite this rude awakening, his mind still worked more swiftly than Aidan's, who was staring up in disbelief, mouth dropped open in shock.

“Heart had not stopped, yes?” Brokk asked, resisting the urge to cough. “Lungs just seized up? How could you tell?”

“I couldn't smell your bowels,” Embla answered bluntly. “You would be dead then, but I had hope to reach you before that. Clear your throat, push down your chest like you still breathed, then touch your mind to force your body to act. The ear is very fleshy, even for one of your age. Enough pain there will wake the dead. Ha! Good joke, yes?”

“Terrible joke! Terrible!” he laughed back at her, the pain in his chest almost making him regret it immediately—almost, but not quite. “Make a thousand more like it for all I care! You brutal, beautiful, crazy, life-saver!”

“Now Aidan, when you are done looking more shocked than a lightning-struck fish,” she said briskly to the other. “Pass me the hositan and I'll wake her up too.”

Aidan looked at her, barely able to believe how calm she was, and—holding Isolde as far away from Embla as he could whilst not actually dropping her—gave vent to his rage. She merely smiled over his tirade, even as it drifted into the most gratuitous personal insults he could come up with, and held Brokk to her as she might a child, comforting him with her warmth and solidity. It was nothing personal after all. Relief came in many forms.

♢♢♢♢♢

He watched the four friends, blind as he was, following the paths of their futures in all its myriad forms. His foresight had been savaged by the presence of Asta, true, but Tarsus could feel it healing already, and changing in the process. Possibilities now revealed themselves to the oracle, whereas previously there was but a single course that anyone could take.

Or was it I, and I alone, who could take a single course unto now? he considered the option. To learn falsely that there was no choice in one's destiny, that I might spur on those at risk of turning away from theirs? Mistress Janora, is this your doing? Did you see that limiting my fate would give others the chance to reach their own? Dralin directed to the southern crypts, Tarrosh to spare the traitor she hunted.

And these. To tell them what? There are none who seek their deaths in the Spur? To linger not and pass beyond the reach of their unseen enemy? My Lady Janora, Fateweaver, I saw them all dead. But not…not now? I do not see if they live or die. I see only the face of the one who deserves their fury. What other visions have been kept from me? And what room is there for a blind old prophet in a world of endless possibilities?

Tarsus knew there was not going to be any answer from his goddess. For the first time in his long life, the future would be one that he made for himself. Perhaps it would be good if he made it good. One thing was for sure, however: he would not be paralysed with indecision just because he did not know what was going to happen! No other mortal (and probably the vast majority of immortal) beings had that problem, and he would be damned if he was going to be the exception there as well!

Before setting off down this new path, there was one very important thing he needed to do first. Two very important things, technically, each a part of the greater whole. Just a few short sentences were all that were necessary, but the consequences would reverberate through history for years to come. Tarsus decided it best to start right away. Or at least, once all four were awake.

“I am afraid I have to leave you now,” he announced to Aidan and the others a few minutes later. “There is plenty more havoc awaiting you, but I have other calamities to witness that are nearer in both distance and time. I did enjoy our brief time together and feel as though it warrants some special thanks. Isolde, you win the bet. My name is Tarsus. And this is crucial: demand recompense for the copper gift. You will understand when the time is right.”

He smiled, knowing what her expression was. “For you, Brokk, know that your recovery comes by moonlight, and that some locks hold more tightly without keys. Aidan, I give you this warning. Chastity is a punishment you were not tasked with suffering, but so long as you choose it, your pain is your fault and yours alone.”

The half-elf spluttered indignantly, but Tarsus ignored the protests and turned his face to Embla. Before he even opened his mouth, she began to speak the Risarvinni tongue that none present save her understood. It was an ultimatum of some kind, he could tell that much by her tone, but the rest was a mystery to him.

His inner eyes beheld a great multitude of futures, all focused upon this moment in time, each showing a different revelation to her. One by one, they darkened and shattered like glass, until there was only one left. He did not understand the meaning behind what he was going to say, but knew this was perhaps the last time the Lady of Fate would intervene in his visions.

“Nauthjeya.” Tarsus spoke the word and wondered at its meaning even more as he heard a happy sigh from Embla. “Well, I suppose that shall be all. Fare thee well, such as you can. We shall meet again. Relax. That was no prophecy. Just a gut feeling.”

With that, he bowed to the quartet and stepped away from them. The first part was complete. Now for the second. Just a few steps further, and he was passing the young fishwife that Asta had attacked. She was ostensibly trying to gather up what few eels had not slithered away after her basket went flying, but her eyes kept straying back to Aidan. To her, Tarsus whispered a supportive and reassuring comment that belied his foreknowledge of what would transpire if he did so.

“Persist and he will welcome your thanks, and ultimately give you that which you deserve.”

With that unpleasantness behind him, Tarsus strode out of Fisherman's Solace, never to return.

♢♢♢♢♢

Isolde drifted across dream-like vistas of memory, from her earliest to her most recent, disliking much of what was shown. When she awoke, it was on a table inside a common room scarily similar to the one that nearly burnt down with her inside, and with a cool wet rag soothing her aching brow.

Astonishingly, it was Brokk who stood by her, unsupported on his own two feet, replacing the rag with a fresher and cooler one. He still looked as tired and drained as he had since they left Arden, but there was something more indefinable than mere appearance and posture that suggested he was on the mend. Isolde let her eyes roam, picking out her surroundings.

Seated on the chairs around her, her friends were listening to a polite argument between Aidan and the Kelerite fishwife, who had brought them to her own family's inn as thanks for saving her life—and was evidently especially interested in talking to Aidan in a more private setting. Aidan, as anyone who knew him could have guessed, was trying to refuse the offer without telling the outright lie that his religious oaths prohibited it. Unfortunately, his evasions and protestations of risk and duty seemed only to encourage the woman, who was all but stating that Aidan would have no responsibilities to her thereafter and that any and all risks were hers and hers alone to take.

Hearing Isolde murmur questioningly, Brokk explained, “They have been at this for nearly an hour. If it wasn't so depressing, it would be amusing. Aidan is clearly the most attractive man to have passed through this village in years—which is the depressing part, as I'm sure you'll agree! —and since he could end this just by telling her ‘no’, which he so far has not done, then I can't help but smile at how persistent she is. Hmm, make you a bet? Five minutes more at most and Emb....”

“Ylsmyr save us!” Embla cried out in frustration, cutting off every conversation nearby and, by chance, winning the bet Brokk was about to make for him. “You, woman, to your room. Aidan, you follow.”

When the half-elf instead crossed his arms stubbornly, Embla reached out and seized his ears between forefinger and thumb. Isolde found the sounds he made, standing on tiptoe and grabbing futilely at his tormentor, to be quite entertaining as Embla pulled on the points just hard enough to suggest extraordinary levels of pain if he continued to refuse.

“Second time, last time, Aidan. Follow. Sit with her. Speak with her. Only lay with her after if you wish to. Now, I will let you go, and you will go, yes?”

She let go. Aidan rubbed his ears mournfully, giving Embla a reproachful look, then trudged up the stairs as though going to his own funeral. The Erunian just shook her head after the pair and sat back down, muttering wordlessly under her breath. The others chuckled and she looked up at them questioningly.

“You sound like a frustrated mother disciplining her wayward children,” Isolde explained. “I've heard that tone before ten thousand times. Just aimed at me, you understand, never mind my brothers. Or my father, aiy-yi-yi. What a couple they were. Are, I mean. Probably. Neither was ever likely to change their ways, or truly want the other to change. Love is strange. I miss them.”

Isolde's forlorn expression was painful to see, and Brokk wanted to wipe it away at once. He could think of only one way: “Tell us about yourself. Tell us what we don't know and can't guess. And we will do the same, right Embla?”

Instinctively, Embla started a noncommittal shrug, but a hopeful and interested look had replaced melancholy on Isolde's face, so she sighed and nodded instead. Isolde smiled gratefully at her friends, picked the most comfortable-looking chair to lean back in, and thought about where to begin….

♢♢♢♢♢

THIRD INTERLUDE

A sea of hositan faces looked up at him expectantly and with open hostility. Only one of them, belonging to the promising gutter runner he had been instructed to mentor, he recognized, but knew that they were functionally one third of the Association, and the only family in Zel City. The census takers might be fooled by the family names, being ignorant of the custom, but not he, who knew to ask for the clan name.

The ancient and storied Ballussia clan was the only halfling clan in Zel City. If a halfling was not born into it, they married into it. Every halfling family, from the Amero cobblers and the Lentissi butchers, to the Fastrinni miners and the Zalucchio masons, were Ballussia at their core.

Even for a hardened criminal such as Leigdaith, who had stared down Havenish tidecallers and the true Orlander drow, and traded with disgraced Blacksun Legionnaires in the deepest pits of Wawmar, this was an unsettling moment. Halflings were gentle and impressionable folk most of the time, yet too many had made the mistake of thinking this meant they were also unable to fight back. Leigdaith would never make that mistake.

Unlike most, after all, he had seen what they were capable of. He had been stationed at Gemulla when the earth shook, and the palisades fell, under the thundering hooves of near a thousand bellowing emishika, the domesticated dire elks ridden by the barbaric Proudfellow clans. Each immense beast bore a crude palanquin carrying six hositan on its back, with each hositan shrieking madly and hurling poison-dipped spears and loosing barbed gut-ripper arrows into the startled garrison troops.

He had seen the moment when, at the head of the charge, the incongruously undersized leader of this stampede, Shoshona of the Kabani tribe, raised a war horn to her lips and blew a note that shattered it to pieces—and released the elemental spirits bound within, their fiery exodus from this plane wrapping the hositan and their mounts in silver flames that scorched the servants of evil from several feet away.

The attack had been repulsed, of course. The forces of the Wintervale had stood strong against this onrush and wiped out the impudent creatures. Yet Gemulla itself, its artisans still holding the secrets of their smithing technique, had been razed to the ground in the process. Several senior officers had been slain in the battle and embarrassingly, no captives had been taken to be made examples of. The dying words of Shoshona had even been carried away from the battlefield by less intelligent troopers who had been curious as to their meaning, raising her to the status of a martyr.

Ballussias were no Proudfellows—Leigdaith doubted that more than a handful of dying bloodlines of those savage little fiends yet existed—but he had not lived this long by taking foolish risks. With the memory of Gemulla and its fabled, lost art fresh in his mind again, Leigdaith looked down at the only face he recognised and smiled. He knew how to get out of this introduction (and hopefully the assignment) intact.

“So many faces and so many families, how could an old fool like me presume to know you all?” he laughed self-disparagingly, holding up a sheaf of papers that were presumably his notes on exactly who was who. “Isolde, perhaps you would be so kind as to step up here? If I am to be introduced to you all, it should be done by one of your own. And I would like to meet the Ballussia clan.”

As he had thought, addressing them as such had caught their attention and blunted their outright hostility. He had shown himself to be more than just a common grunt of the Association, but someone familiar at least in passing with their long and convoluted history. Satisfying their curiosity in this regard would be permissible, before deciding whether to arrange an accident for him.

♢♢♢♢♢

As requested, Isolde Amero Ballussia stepped up next to the asharzimal, the dark elf, avoiding looking him in the eye, and turned to face her vast family. Scattered throughout the crowd were the watchful, protective faces of her immediate relatives, and none more so than her father Panta. If anything dared to threaten his only daughter, there would be nothing left of the fool who did so.
Technically he was more at risk here than anyone else, for he was not a member of the Association and was only protected from its prohibitions against freelancing by virtue of having married one of its most powerful guildmasters.

On the other side of the assembly hall, her mother Droggo waited patiently for this charade to be over, the hositan around her keeping a respectful distance even as they jostled and shoved each other in usually-good humour. Isolde took a moment to draw strength from this silent social titan among her people and took a deep breath.

“We are Ballussias of Zel,” she began in a formal tone that was very unlike her, and which drew murmurs from the listeners. “And we welcome Leigdaith the Tall, Overseer of Ekruup, to our halls. He does us honour by taking as apprentice one of our own, so do we him honour with the honesty of thieves!”

Ripples of laughter among the hositan, who had begun to see the joke, and even Droggo cracked a smile at her daughter's scheme. Given how entertaining it was, she decided to join in the fun as well. The shuffling and jostling intensified, and Leigdaith tensed as clear groups began to appear in the crowd.

“You requested an introduction to us all,” Isolde continued, somehow managing to keep a straight face. “Well then, you shall have exactly that! As you are clearly aware, I am Isolde Amero Ballussia, your new apprentice. Over there is my dear father, Panta Amero, and that lovely lady next to him is of course my mother, Droggo Marie, our beloved Mamacita.”

Cheers and whistles rose up. Droggo put on her most theatrical expression of surprise, and pretended to fan herself, whilst Panta went for the broadest smirk he could manage, nodding at his wife and then pointing his thumb at himself proudly. Next to Isolde, Leigdaith closed his eyes and wished he could close his ears. She, on the other hand, continued merrily and remorselessly.

“Now, over there is my oldest brother Hamfast and his wife Lindo, and their elder children Droggo, Marain, and Panta. That ugly mug is my next oldest brother Stellon and his wife Nanto, and their elder children Marain, Panta, Hamfast, and Carl. Over there you have my twin brothers Balba and Carl, and their twin wives Prisco and Rowan—because apparently it was a very cold winter the previous year! —and their elder children Droggo, Goldy, Balba, Panta, and Tella; and Droggo, Goldy, Carl, Panta, and Tella. And that man over there is my poor, widowed, youngest brother Fosca, with his beautiful daughters Droggo and Hildo, named for the love of his life, of course, in uncontested defiance of convention.”

A rumble of sympathetic murmurs swept the hall, and several hands reached out to pat the trio in solidarity. It was a brief moment that otherwise failed to halt the levity as Isolde, now warming to her theme and audience, continued to ‘introduce’ the half-drow overseer to each and every one of the assembled hositan.

“There is Isen-‘very’-grim—will you smile, you cheerless bastard, this is a guest! —and his luckless wife and mistress trying to ignore each other. Both are Tansicco, both are Isolde, both are really going to hate me for this, but who cares, I wear the name best so haha! Don't bother, you'll miss.”

An unpleasantly brown cabbage flew out of the crowd anyway, but came closer to hitting Leigdaith.

“She always brings one just in case,” Isolde explained in a stage whisper that reached the back of the hall as clearly as it did the front row, eliciting howls of delighted laughter. “Where was I? Oh yes, Gorman Lentissi and his wife….”

It was a very long meeting.

♢♢♢♢♢

If any one thing could be said to have marred their professional relationship as master and apprentice, it was that Isolde had made the mistake of audibly agreeing with Leigdaith's comment that she would doubtless prefer to work with either a full drow or an oluk over him. He had taken the insult remarkably well, only dangling her from the spire for two days without food or water before bringing her back inside.

“An oluk would have just ripped out your tongue and then fed it to you,” he stated matter-of-factly. “And a drow might have slathered you with offal to attract crows to eat you alive. Remember that I am merciful and believe me weak for it. If you manage to avenge yourself, then you will not only be proven correct, but will be a master yourself and ready to take on apprentices of your own.”

Isolde had learned from her experience, and kept quiet that this was one of the stupidest things she had ever heard. She did not think, at fourteen years of age, that there was anything more to take from the lecture. Over the next few years she would come to learn differently, but by that time she had already made up her mind about the Association and the role her clan played in it. Arguments aplenty raged over this whenever she went back home.

“We survive better than others,” her brothers would say, often bouncing a new baby on their knee. “Our people are less than nothing in Orland. There are none of us at all in Wawmar or Farland, so they say.”

“By helping the Association, we help the evil that has reduced us to this!” Isolde would counter. “The Association does not care who it hurts, or what it takes, and the more we do, the more the Wintervale presses down on everyone. Nobody even wants to fight back anymore because of how much pressure they are under.”

“Nobody ever wanted to fight back that could,” their father invariably broke in here, and they would all listen out of respect for his experience. “We fought at Rowanspeak. Almost all died. They fought at Doldur. Almost all died. Ekruup. Rill. Stadefast. Almost all died, again and again. After each battle, the Vale was stronger than before. What lesson do we learn from this?”

Droggo, the beloved and deadly Mamacita of Zel, would listen to the arguments and say nothing for the longest time. Only raised brows or pursed lips gave away her agreement or lack thereof to any of the points made. More often than not, she seemed to agree with Isolde's view of things on moral grounds, but stood with the men on the matter of necessity and survival.

At last, when she tired of the back-and-forth, she would clap her hands sharply, a signal to end it or risk her wrath. It was part of the ritual, however, to ignore this warning. Someone would always dare to speak next, even if it was just to gloat, and Droggo would turn on them. Once she had worked through her own frustrations, peace and harmony was restored to the family, and they basked in each other's company for the little time they had together.

Leigdaith was eventually reassigned from Isolde back to Ekruup, the Association guildmasters considering her training to have been sufficient for her own next major assignment—an ostensibly quick smash-and-grab over the border in Kelerak—and for some time after, the two had no contact whatsoever.

It was only after the implosion of the Association that Isolde sought him out again. He had survived the slaughter wreaked upon its own by the criminal underworld, and had even managed to carve out a small freelance empire for himself in Ekruup. One morning however, he awoke to an overpowering sense of numbness, barely able to move his eyes. Isolde was standing next to his bed, idly rolling a pair of dice around her hand.

“An oluk would rip out your tongue and feed it to you,” she said thoughtfully. “A drow would slather you with offal to let crows eat you alive. Well, I am neither oluk nor drow, any more than you are, but the poison in your veins is a combination of their perversions. It seemed appropriate for an asharzimal like you. You will be dead soon. No pain. Better than you deserve, but I am merciful, as you were. The apprentice is now the master, but the Association will have neither anymore.”

Isolde waited until Leigdaith stopped breathing. She placed her free hand to his throat and waited until his heart stopped. She waited a little longer still until the warmth began to leave his body. Only then did she stop rolling the dice and take her leave of the only life she had ever known. She could freelance her way west to fame and fortune, and get her family out of this same life along the way. It would not be easy, but it could be done. It was what she had been trained to do, after all.

♢♢♢♢♢

The room was remarkably spartan, and Aidan briefly felt himself back in his temple cell below Zel City upon entering. There were no decorations or extraneous items beyond the absolutely necessary, everything apparently stored away in a large crate tucked away under the bed, which despite being an inanimate object somehow looked surprised to have a so-called donkey's breakfast, an actual straw mattress, laid across its boards.

At the washbasin next to the curtainless window, splashing her face with water, the Kelerite woman smiled reassuringly at Aidan. “Go on, sit down, I won't bite, I promise. Not even if you ask nicely. Just give me a minute to freshen up, hmm?”

Reluctantly, he sat down on the bed, already feeling more uncomfortable than he had in years. He kept shifting his weight to begin with, hoping it was purely physical discomfort. As nothing helped, after a few attempts he simply gave up, and kept his eyes fixed on the door; the dull view from the window was preferable, true, but it was also dangerously close to his host.

“Oh now, sir knight, am I so plain to look upon that you prefer my door?” the woman asked, sounding only faintly offended. “I know I am no courtly beauty such as your travelled eyes must be used to, yet surely I cannot be so unpleasing?”

Aidan squirmed. “It is nothing of the sort. And please do not call me ‘sir knight’. My name is Aidan of Zel.”

She looked at him, head on one side, gentle and dark eyes peering out from a sun-warmed face that had seen its fair share of hard winters. There was no mistaking the patience of the fisherfolk in those eyes. Under her calm, questioning gaze, the paladin only squirmed harder as he tried to think of a better way to explain what he meant.

With a soft laugh, she waved the issue away and sat down beside him. “Very well, Aidan of Zel. There is no need to rush anything. Except for your attire. Take at least that clanking metal shirt off and let me bathe your hero's bruises.”

Now it was Aidan's turn to be a little offended: “Elf-mail does not ‘clank’! And furthermore, I only seem to be a hero because...”

“Hush yourself, Aidan of Zel! It was a jest, nothing more, and may not a maid take some liberties with how she sees the one who saved her life from a ravening beast? No, be hushed yet, my good sir knight. It may have taken all four of you to drive that monster away, but had you not moved so swiftly, I would be no more than a cooling corpse before then. Do I lie?”

Aidan shook his head slowly, caught between humility and honesty. Seeing that, she smiled again—and her smile did indeed make her as beautiful as any noblewoman—and clapped her hands with a no-nonsense finality.

“Elf-mail shirt off,” she commanded. “Bruises first. Talk too. Pleasure, if you do not flee my embrace, after.”

Knowing himself beaten, Aidan began to ease out of his jerkin and armour.

♢♢♢♢♢

The washcloth was a joy on his bare skin, soothing his many aches as it passed over them. He had heard her gasp on seeing the battered state of his flesh, and whatever lusts she felt for him had taken second place behind her desire to cure his ills. She had withdrawn a vial of some clear liquid from the crate under her bed—“A tinker's tonic of some expense,” she had explained without explaining anything—and added it to the water she now mopped him with, leaving a curiously familiar medicinal smell in the air.

Aidan had to admit, it was a very pleasant feeling that left him numb to the many little pains he had suffered over the last few weeks. She spoke of many things and nothing all at once, of the way her family had fished for eels for generations, of the kindness of her fellows, and the stories she had heard of distant lands and mighty heroes battling terrible evils. Her gentle caresses slowly widened their scope, though not presumptuously so, until he seemed to be adrift in a warm ocean, between the realms of waking and dream.

From a thousand leagues away, Aidan heard her voice lose its rolling provincial accent, shifting to a sharper and more rigid one that left a foul taste in his mouth. The washcloth was no longer tracing its path across his skin, and there was a sensation of emptiness by his side that suggested the woman had moved back. He started to pull his mind back to awareness as he realised that his limbs were not merely soothed, but sedated.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the simple fisherwoman hunched once more over her crate, and his stomach roiled at the obscenity that stood there. Its basic shape had not changed, but its skin had lost all colour and was stretched so tightly over its bones and musculature that it looked to have been removed. Cold fires burned in its eyes, eager and hateful.

It withdrew its hands from the crate back into Aidan's unsteady view, with a shining loop of silver wrapped through its long and spindly fingers. With a titanic effort, Aidan wrenched himself fully awake and brought up his own hands. One seized the nearest clammy arm of the monstrosity still partially clad in its villager disguise, trying to force it away... but the other, just in case, swept up in front of his exposed throat. And not a moment too soon!

The garrotte descended, catching between his fingers, pulling on them with such force that Aidan nearly began to choke on his own knuckles as they pressed against his windpipe. Finally, his eyes met those of his host, no ordinary Kelerite fishwife, but a doppelganger, one of the most loathed agents of the forces of evil.

“Ooh-hoo!” it squealed in mock terror, its ghastly natural voice reverting to that of its womanly disguise. “You are a big tough fighter! I don't think little me can handle all of you!”

His own ability to speak being almost completely cut off, Aidan gurgled a response that only elicited a girlish giggle. Acting as he had been taught to in such situations, he tried to roll back suddenly, the bed protesting the violent motion with a squeak. Yet in trying to dislodge the assassin's grip, he simply collided with its knee, perfectly positioned to intercept such a manoeuvre, and this time it was his back that protested the impact.

“Not so fast, sir knight, you must learn to take things more slowly!” the doppelganger chastised him, undeniable eagerness dripping from every syllable.

♢♢♢♢♢

In a normal contest of strength, Aidan would have easily triumphed over the creature attempting to strangle him. Naturally, this was why said creature had taken its time before revealing itself, and by first sapping the paladin's strength and will to resist with a soporific concoction based on the infamous Kunese blue lotus.

Ironically, it was the very extent of Aidan's injuries gained in the last battle against the dire wolf that had kept him from becoming completely incapacitated, for they were so widespread and fresh that his body was too traumatised to know exactly what it was doing. The lotus concoction was being absorbed too slowly and too inefficiently to have its full effect. Still, this was a far cry from their struggle being in any way easily decided.

Aidan tried a new tactic, heaving himself up so that he could properly leverage the strength of his legs. The doppelganger countered by twisting the garrotte to throw him off-balance, sending them back down onto the bed with a great thump! After a few further attempts at compensating for this, Aidan changed tactics again, instead releasing his hold on the doppelganger's arm to claw at its eyes, but pulled his fingers away sharply as the monster snapped at them.

“Maybe I will bite you then,” it laughed at him, though starting to sound a little short of breath. “Can't just wave things in front of me like that and not expect a little nibble!”

Strangely, part of Aidan's mind wondered if the fury he felt was in any way similar to that of Embla. Now there was a woman he wanted to see right now, and not because of her strength—no, Aidan remembered the indignity of his ears being plucked like those of a disobedient child, and the almost disgusted way she had sent him off to bed. And not even his own bed, he mentally raged, but that of an eel-catching wench that was actually a gods-be-damned doppelganger!

Even as the pair continued their struggle, back and forth, straining against each other with all their might, Aidan found his thoughts drifting even more closely to Embla. This humiliating position was not one that she would have put herself in, for all that his inaction at Arden had brought her narrowly close to it, and in hindsight this could almost be construed as justice. Yet if Aidan knew anything about her, it was that Embla would not have let such a petty thing as cosmic retribution stop her from slaughtering whomever dared to try to take advantage of her, no matter the cost.

At this precise moment, Aidan was being taken advantage of. His muscles were still crying out for lotus-induced sleep, his armour was on the floor out of his reach, his warhammer was in the common room downstairs, Heshtail have mercy! There was a bony knee pressed into his kidneys, a choking wire pressing his own fist into his throat, and to judge by the ambient sounds, no help forthcoming. The cost of victory then, was what Aidan needed to decide on paying.

♢♢♢♢♢

The first sign of the end came when the doppelganger felt Aidan go limp. It was not fooled into thinking the half-elf was dead or even unconscious. Its wiser victims usually attempted this when they felt their strength beginning to fail for the last time. It instead tightened its grip, being rewarded with the smell of fresh blood as its deadly wire cut into the fingers that had blocked its cruel embrace.

The paladin shifted his weight a little beneath it. His free hand reached up again, futilely scrabbling nowhere near the doppelganger's eyes. Precisely as it had warned him only a few moments earlier, the doppelganger leaned forward and snapped at the waving pink delicacies. Said waving pink delicacies immediately closed on its tongue and, as the doppelganger frantically reopened its mouth even more widely to bite down hard enough to sever them, ripped the wriggling muscle from its moorings.

Dark blood gushed from the wound, pouring down the doppelganger's throat and reducing its agonised scream to a long moan. The garrotte fell from its hands, it fell back from the half-elf, and then the half-elf fell upon it. The pair crashed into the wall, sending reverberations throughout the inn, then to the floor, where the doppelganger thrashed madly in a vain attempt to escape the greater weight and all-consuming fury of the paladin it had sought to slay.

Appropriately, Aidan's hands closed about the creature's throat and began to squeeze, at once choking and drowning it, trapping the blood it had already inhaled. His thumbs, torn by wire and fang, begged him to stop, as did the cold eyes of the assassin that had so wounded them. But Aidan, paladin of Heshtail the Merciful, had no forgiveness left in him for this monster.

He squeezed harder and longer and longer and harder, until his own body betrayed him and released the hold it could maintain no more. The doppelganger lay still beneath him. The sweat of his exertions was beginning to clear his body of the lotus poison with which the thing had nearly killed him.

With one final groan of effort, Aidan picked himself up and started to stagger to the door. Then he paused, trying to think about what came next, and turned back. Muttering in disgust, he grabbed the doppelganger by an ankle and began to drag its limp corpse towards the stairs.

♢♢♢♢♢

“Do you have any idea how smug you look? It is almost revolting.”

Embla smiled even more smugly at Isolde, if that were possible. The muffled sounds reaching them from upstairs had been more than explanatory. Squeaking boards, delighted womanly laughter, unmistakable moans and grunts of effort culminating in a single deep and masculine groan. Well, it would have been clear to a temple virgin what was going on up there!

Heavy footsteps on the stairs signalled Aidan's approach. Embla stretched, still enjoying the satisfaction of having been proven correct, and then stood up to welcome back the conquering hero, a particularly large mug of ale ready to be handed over in celebration.

Aidan appeared at the top of the stairway then, still sweat-drenched and naked to the waist, panting heavily and with his strong right arm still out of view, no doubt supporting him on the bannister. Embla raised the mug and cheered him, along with several of the other patrons who had been equally aware of the goings-on. He just looked at them blankly for a few seconds before continuing to descend.

When his right arm and the foul thing it dragged behind him became visible, the cheers stopped abruptly and a horrified silence fell. On reaching the last stair, Aidan tensed and threw the doppelganger's corpse into the common room, his glare daring someone to comment. Embla frowned, put down the mug, and walked up to the body. Slowly, she circled it, examining it from all sides. Finally, she gave it a single mighty kick in the ribs, noting the way they caved into the lungs with a faint bubbling.

“Definitely dead,” she announced confidently to the dumbstruck room.

The smug grin returned to her face at that point. Isolde clapped her hands over her eyes, knowing what was coming next. Embla faced Aidan, winked at him, then cheered even more loudly than before. This time, everybody joined in, even Isolde after a few seconds. The noble paladin's next words were almost entirely drowned out, but Isolde's hearing was just keen enough to pick up some fragment.

It sounded like: “You can…all…right off!”

♢♢♢♢♢

In a dying glade, where spywings clustered on trees rotting away from the inside out, and a crow that was not truly a crow watched the scene impassively, Niklaus the Demoniac, devotee of Vornoth and unseen scourge of Anaria, once more stood before the ethereal yet human form of Asta, the wife whose love he had betrayed and whose existence he had cursed to become confusion and misery for centuries.

“I am very disappointed in you, my dear,” Niklaus stated mournfully, shaking his head. “All this time to reflect on your behaviour, and still you shriek at me as if I am the one who is at fault. Ah, but how I adored that stubbornness, that fire in your soul when first we met. Perhaps it will take a while yet for you to realise the error of your ways. You will come to understand the tender mercy I granted you after some decades spent in the company of my patrons.”

He raised a hand at the shade before him, drawing upon the unholy energies that would banish her lingering soul to the outer planes. It was a feat he had performed many times before, on ghosts and spirits of all sorts who came to seek their revenge upon him. When Asta's shape did not so much as flicker, he frowned in surprise, uncertain as to what had happened.

“You presume too much now as then, Niklaus,” she hissed at him, ectoplasmic spittle sizzling as it struck the ground. “You are too old to know how to change. An old elk, a diseased elk, weak and vulnerable. I am a wolf. Dead, but not gone. I will hunt you forever. You cannot escape me, prey creature. I will be avenged against you.”

Niklaus sneered at the threat. “Nor can you harm me. However you escaped the curse, it took with it your ability to affect the world of life. You are a phantasm, scarce more than a mirage to me. I may not be able to turn you from my path, or this world, as I might any unliving thing so foolish as to challenge me… but I can just ignore you. I am well-versed in that art. Demons are a tricksome lot to converse with, after all.”

Asta just howled in reply, sounding as much the wolf as she ever had, and Niklaus took a step back, trying not to look worried. When her shade rushed forward, soft translucence darkening to grey and black, he flinched. Asta's derisive laughter came closer to enraging him than any demonic presence he had summoned.

“You even think like a demon!” she mocked him. “You say exactly what you mean, and no longer see how others cannot! Had you called upon devils, you would have been better educated. Oh yes, Niklaus, I learned much from your lectures and sermons to me. I said that I would be avenged—not that I would be the one to do the avenging. The wolf hunts in packs, dear husband, and you can see that I am all alone. But not always!”

Niklaus began to understand, and he quailed inside.

“I will but lead the hunt that brings you down. I will see your every strength and your every weakness. I will see you dead. I will see your soul rent by the very fiends you presumed to bind to your will. Oh Niklaus, Niklaus, Niklaus. Do you see yet? I will chase you through the Vales of Winter and Summer, through the Arned Storm, and through Perdition's flames before I give you up! So tremble, Niklaus! Tremble before the wolf! Tremble before Asta!”

On his perch, Marchosias the imp, growing bored of the exchange, flapped his crow wings and took to the skies. There was no longer anything of use for him or his supposed master in this part of Kelerak. Niklaus was doomed. The spywings had already reported the failure of his doppelganger agent. It would be best to abandon him to his fate. There were other avenues to explore for a way to triumph over that miserable quartet of adventurers.

He wondered if any of those avenues were even left in the northern reaches of Kelerak to which they would now undoubtedly travel. It seemed unlikely, but that was a problem for another. He was going to take some long overdue respite and visit a compatriot to the west.

TO BE CONTINUED