Storms Over Kelerak
By R. Krommydas
He had spent too long patrolling the borders of his domain to be fooled by the peace on the other side. It was so completely devoid of threat that nobody could have been fooled into thinking it was safe. Just beyond the horizon, the great watchtowers of Fort Sont stood silent, all but abandoned in these tranquil days save for a paltry garrison of fresh recruits. An invaluable cost-saving measure for Kale, as the court advisers had persuaded the boy-king Felmat.
Easy to sneer, he knew, but harder to acknowledge hypocrisy. Carn Marrot was itself practically a ruin, truly abandoned since before his birth nine centuries past, and he had done nothing to rectify matters there in the six hundred years he had ruled this region. There was, it seemed, always something more pressing and worthwhile.
Harald Thodricsson, the Eternal Baron, looked over his shoulder at the imposing, crumbling fortress that still dominated the skyline from Dessingrove. The sudden movement woke the sprites resting in his hair, and the startled pair flittered around his head with anxious cries, arrows at the ready. He soothed them with a word, apologizing and promising to be more careful in future. Murmuring sleepily, the tiny fey settled back down to sleep amid the thick green tresses, and Harald felt the gentle warmth of new leaf-like growths appearing to cover them. After all these years, he was very nearly a fey being himself.
Slowly, he turned his head back towards the emptiness that stretched from Kelerak to Kale. Something was coming and he did not know what. This did not unnerve him so much as annoy him. The primordial energies of the Elk Forest to which his life force was bound weakened rapidly with distance, and no amount of practice or experience had proven able to reverse that.
And the Proudfellows took the secret of their totems with them, Harald recalled with regret, thinking back on the exodus of those nigh-feral hositan from their ancient home. Build a few dozen more of those outside the forest itself and maybe then I could see beyond it!
On the other side of the barony, amid the trees he had hunted in for his nemesis, a hawk closed its talons around a fat squirrel. He felt the little rodent`s life slip away. He also felt the savage joy, overlaying keen relief, of the predator securing food for itself and its chicks. All through the Elk Forest and even some of its immediate surroundings, life and death pulsed inexorably, and Harald could feel it all. Until he had accepted it, the sensation had come close to driving him mad, but now its presence was almost comforting.
Nothing else he could do here now. Waiting for whatever was going to happen to happen was not his preferred choice of plan, but since he did not actually have a choice in the matter, a return to Dessingrove was in order - after letting the sprites off before entering the town, of course. Forebodings aside, he still had matters of state to attend to, including one that was supposedly very urgent.
"All right, Alaym," Harald asked of his majordomo, "What`s so important it can`t - PUTTHATDOWN!"
The satyr, caught entirely by surprise, fumbled with the vase in a blind panic, and placed it smartly back on its pedestal. He snapped to attention in almost military fashion, but his eyes struggled to stay focused on his lord as a very obvious sloshing sound came from within the vase. The pungent odour rising from it, and on his breath, was very nearly visible.
"I have no idea what you are talking about!" Alaym interrupted defensively. "I don`t drink on the job. You`ve never caught me drinking on the job! I resent the accusation that I`ve been drinking on the job."
Harald raised an eyebrow. "I never said anything about drinking. My predecessor imported that vase from Yrrkune. We are auctioning it next week, as I recall, and you have a tendency to drop precious objects like clingy tavern wenches the morning after. Which vintage?"
Alaym hung his head, shame-faced. "The Nyon Eau-du-Alf Blanc '59. It was just sitting there. Lonely. So I introduced myself." The baron waited patiently and was 'rewarded': "I may also have introduced it to the Selble Syrah '64. They got on very well together."
Frowning, the baron thought on this for a few seconds. "Um, Alaym, I`ve been meaning to ask this since the Davonian exchange. Do all satyrs believe that you get a rose wine by mixing a red and a white, or is that just you?"
Alaym looked up in confusion, scuffing the floor with a hoof, clearly unsure if that was a rhetorical question or not. With a resigned sigh, Harald walked over to the vase, looked inside - already knowing what he would see - and rubbed his forehead in mock despair. Then, more out of a kind of morbid and self-destructive curiosity than actual interest, he sampled the contents. Instantly, he felt his body twist and change from its very core, rejecting the vile concoction as it would poison, fighting to break it down into something harmless.
"I`ve had orc grog that was better than this," he coughed, resisting the urge to vomit. "By the Great Bear, Alaym, how do you stomach this? Or any of those unholy mixtures you come up with?"
The satyr shrugged. "Probably because we grow beyond the tastes of mere mortals before our tenth year. The longer we live, the more extreme any sensation must be to arouse the same pleasure for us. That`s why we don`t couple with you humans or elves for more than a few years after our first encounter: you are too boring. Even dwarves tend to become too fragile after thirty or so years. We always have to look further and further afield...."
"Ah, that reminds me, you have a visitor," exclaimed Alaym. "A very important one, all the way from Kale City. I know, I know. 'Where is his retinue then?' and 'No clarion calls and too little pomp and ceremony for that, isn`t there?' and so on. I thought it strange too. Then he informed me of the reason for his visit. Apparently there is a great threat to our two countries looming on the horizon and as you have responsibility for this part of the border, he wanted to meet with you in secret before it grew to be any greater. I took the liberty of sequestering him in your private study and dismissing the maids for the evening. You won`t be disturbed."
Harald thanked his majordomo, pleased to see that his suspicions and concerns were merited, and that another had apparently learned of their cause. This was not a feeling that would last out this fine spring day, in that long-ago year of 7470 FR....
The feeling of being in a collapsed burrow, or a predator`s grip, or some other prison, was all-pervasive and intense and began the moment Harald stepped through the door into his study. He hesitated, unused to being the focus of this feeling, but shook it off and closed the door behind him.
"I truly admire the trust your servants have in you," said the strikingly handsome young man seated at the desk, turned slightly to face Harald. "If only mine were quite so valuable. I suppose in time they will be."
Harald lunged, but ignoring the figure and aiming to the empty space on its left. At once, a rush of air signaled the evasion of the actual physical entity within his study, and the conditional illusion it had placed to deceive Harald became faded and muted, still acting and speaking as though the parameters of its casting remained in effect.
The source of this illusion wavered into view as its relatively minor invisibility was dispelled by the violence of its next spell, reading from a small leather-bound grimoire with pages of beautifully hewn cold-iron, and a bleak aura sprung up around the towering skeletal horror that had sought to ambush Harald. The baron began to retch and cough at once as his connection to the Elk Forest trembled under the power of an antilife barrier. Still, he kept his back straight and his head up, glaring at his foe.
"Jaef of Kale," he forced himself to say through waves of nausea. "Puppeteer of a nation. As arrogant and narcissistic as ever. You should have made your illusion show someone other than your own young self! Though I remember you being less pretty then than you are now!"
In a voice that froze the air itself, rimefrost forming along the furniture, Jaef sneered at his prey: "Clever, clever. But I have prepared for you in ways you cannot outwit."
Harald snorted, blinking hard to clear his vision as it attempted to fail. "Then I will have to outfight you, lich!"
He held out a hand and from the flagstones at his feet, a thin vine sprouted in defiance of the deadly aura filling the room. In seconds, it wrapped itself around his fingers and began to grow and thicken into something more. As the baron pulled it loose, unmistakable leaves burst out at either end and hardening into cruel blades. The mistletoe glaive quivered in his grip, eager to feed and with its hunger barely turned aside from its own wielder.
This was a weapon that even a lich ought be wary of, infused with the relentless power of life and death in perfect, natural harmony. Jaef responded to its appearance by snapping free an icicle and letting corruption flow into it. The icicle writhed and elongated into the feared staff that had been bound to the lich`s will years past - and just in time, for Harald struck out with his glaive, nearly piercing Jaef through his unfleshed ribcage, but the staff withstood the blow effortlessly and blew the weapon back.
"I have spent decades empowering my Grave-Chill," Jaef proclaimed. "You cannot hope to-"
After its deflection, the other equally-bladed end of the glaive had swept up and cut into the lich`s leg. The hardened leaves of mistletoe reached into the wound, carving their way through unliving flesh. In life, Jaef had been an ambitious and studious wizard of great potential - the arts of swordplay and martial prowess were foreign to him - but as a mortal, Harald had been a raider and pillager of unbridled talent, and a further nine hundred years of life had not dulled his skills in the least. In the brutality of close quarters combat, Jaef was horribly outmatched and he knew it. Had, in truth, planned on it.
The Eternal Baron pressed his strength harder, seeking to amputate the damaged limb, and finding that the lich`s dead flesh had hardened, trapping the glaive inside it. Now he fought to release the weapon, but before he could, Grave-Chill was touched to the glaive and its evil poured out onto it. The magics warred against each other for nearly a whole second, before both weapons shattered. Gelatinous poison spawned from dying magic sprayed everywhere, eating into everything it touched.
Harald crumpled, already weakened by the antilife barrier and unable to withstand this assault. He lay on the floor of his devastated study, wracked with agonies beyond his comprehension, comatose and trapped in a nightmare that could not be ended save by its maker. Jaef, undead and beyond such petty concerns as poisons and toxicity, merely absorbed the necrotic venom into himself, recovering his energies and repairing his damaged leg in the process.
"It will probably take me a century to refashion Grave-Chill to its greatest potential," he said flatly. "Even so, it served its purpose here exactly as planned and I? Oh, I have the time to do so and more besides. Now, you just lie there until I come back. Then, or perhaps after all of the West is mine, I will take from you the immortality that you did not earn as I did."
But for the tortured, unknowing Harald Thodricsson, Eternal Baron and the true lord of Dessingrove, it would be another seven hundred years before such a hope would show itself.
Curled up in the tree hollow, Bukki mumbled in self-pity, wincing at the ache in his battered tail. He had not even deserved this beating today, but what did that matter to Overseer Gevan? The brute treated even the slave-caste orcs better than Bukki or his cousins. As he had finally been allowed to limp away, Bukki had seen a goblin shake its head pityingly at him. A goblin! That was even more humiliating than being beaten.
The kobold`s misery was interrupted by the sound of voices, and he immediately curled up even tighter. If he was caught out here, it would be the gibbet for him - and then only if he was lucky! It sounded like a small group, maybe no more than four or five hunters, and by the heavy footfalls, Bukki could tell at least some were orcs or bigger. That was lucky. Goblins and other kobolds would know how to find him, and would do so if they were on their own. With a boss along, though, they would ignore any signs they spotted. That way, it would be the boss who was punished for failure. Even goblins could laugh at a hurt boss, behind his back of course.
Bukki listened carefully. There was something not right about the voices. Nobody from the camps spoke like that. There were too many speaking all at once, or in polite and gentle tones, that no boss would allow. Even if it was just goblins or kobolds, there would be a little boss in the group, keeping everybody on track. Nobody would speak out of turn like Bukki could hear happening now. Especially not in human languages. Hoping he wasn`t killing himself with his curiosity, the little kobold peered down and out of the hollow to the four that had approached his secret hidey-hole.
They were a strange group, speaking in strange accents, with many long and confusing words that Bukki struggled to guess the meaning of. Adventurers, obviously, no doubt looking to sneak through the camps and cause trouble at the fort. Foolish, pointless, suicidal. But the little kobold could tell that these were taking their foolishness seriously.
One of them had the sharp ears of the elves and the offensively red hair of Zelish humans. He looked unhappy. Every so often, an expression of deep concentration on his face, he would change his language, obviously trying to recall how to speak this second language. Bukki was startled. It was the Dark Speech that was being practiced. Even more weird than that: it almost sounded like this adventurer was trying to gain an accent, not lose one, for his speech was as fluid and confident as a born speaker of that black tongue.
Another, a furfoot female, was making adjustments to a very stupid green hat. Bukki had never seen one quite so stupidly tall and round, less still with those silly feathers dangling about everywhere, and that bright blue sash around the bottom. He guessed it was magical. Not even an adventurer would keep something so ugly around otherwise. He did not pretend to understand why anyone would have chosen to make a hat that stupid into a magic thing.
The other two, a mismatched couple of a red-skinned giant and a hairless midget of some sort, were working on a harness, expertly weaving it out of branches and hessian. The big one was going to be wearing it, clearly, and the small one was going to ride on a platform attached to it. It would look really impressive if it was done right. It would look really obvious too. Bukki wondered if these adventurers were not going to try sneaking anywhere.
They settled down near to his tree, and Bukki crouched back into the shadows. They were waiting for later in the day, it seemed, before doing whatever they wanted to do. He listened to them argue with each other. He listened to them laugh and joke and forgive. He thought of what reward he might get for telling on them.
His thoughts were interrupted by the half-elf trying to make himself sound like the Dark Speech was not his birth tongue, and complaining about it. Several especially filthy insults squirmed their way into the air, and Bukki struggled not to giggle. The Dark Speech was the finest language bar none for such things. Then the little kobold sat up straight, not believing he had heard what he had just heard.
When the name Bukki had almost convinced himself he had not heard was repeated, he knew at once that these adventurers were far more important than any others he had ever heard of. Foolish, yes. Suicidal, also yes. But so important too. Now Bukki had to rethink what he was going to do. Rethink lots and carefully.
When she was satisfied there was no more that could be done, at least not by her, Isolde took a step back and admired her handiwork. If she was honest with herself, the expression on Aidan`s face alone was more than worth the time and effort spent adjusting the item for his use. Coupled with the fact that the ridiculous hat only appeared even more idiotic now than it had before...well, she could hardly be blamed for laughing quite so long and loud, could she?
"At the same time I can believe and cannot believe you kept this," Aidan said, in one of the most emotionless voices they had ever heard from him. "Von Lanburg and I have to fight off a personal army, Brokk nearly dies draining a necrotic artifact of its power, Embla suffers through a derro`s lechery, and you! You get to steal a magic hat."
"Hardly going to leave something like that just lying there!" she retorted. "Ugly as it is, magic is magic, and magic is valuable. And Brokk was too busy to tell me no, so...besides, it works. You look, well, you look like a real dulam."
The half-elf flinched unconsciously, hating the very word. Still, it was true. Though the magic of the hat clearly did not extend to itself, it had altered his appearance so that he seemed to be one of the dark elves, and as much as it pained him to adopt such a disguise, it was necessary for the plan that had been devised. It was a plan that had undergone many revisions since leaving Dragonspur, but the group were confident they could improve upon it no further.
None of them had reacted particularly well when they were told what was expected of them. Even Brokk had had some harsh words for Burcan the White upon learning that all of this had been part of his plan to avoid, or at least delay, civil war in Kelerak. However, they had reluctantly agreed to go along with it when the priest had made it abundantly clear that Kelerak would tear itself apart if they did not at least try.
Then the fun part had started: working out just how to accomplish their mission, and liberate a deathless baron from one of the most infamous and powerful liches on the continent. An assault on Dessingrove was out of the question. Stealth had been a favored option, until Embla had simply stood up, and by her sheer size argued very convincingly that such a tactic would be unlikely to succeed.
However, she had then offered up one part of the possible solution: "Aidan, when you first came back from the memories of the dead, you spoke a new language. Can you still speak it?"
It turned out, much to the paladin`s disgust, that the understanding of the Dark Speech imparted by the memories of Tamarrik the Reaver had been seared into his mind. For some time he had shied away from admitting it, even to himself, loathing the very idea of speaking that vile language, but when Isolde had revealed that she had looted a Hat of Disguising from an enemy they had faced months earlier in Arden, the next part of the plan had made itself clear to them.
Since then, Aidan had been reluctantly practising to give himself a Mordularian accent in the Dark Speech, so that whilst wearing it, he could present himself as a drow. The real difficulty came from not being familiar enough with what Mordularian sounded like to know what sort of accent to adopt, and even Isolde, who had been apprenticed to a half-drow back in Zel City, had never heard it spoken in conversation. Still, the pair worked on it until they were satisfied, whilst the other two members of the party worked on their own scheme.
Early on, it had become clear that there was no way they could effectively hide Embla, even if they forwent any other kind of stealth. So, a little hesitantly, Brokk had devised the notion of portraying her as a mobility slave, a mount to be ridden upon in the manner of the hulking beasts of the deep underground by troglodytes and their kin. A full palanquin was not reasonable, but perhaps a simple platform upon which the controlling wizard - in other words, his own relatively light self - might sit imposingly or stand threateningly as the need arose?
To everyone`s surprise, Embla agreed at once. She had even seemed excited by the prospect of carrying Brokk around in that way, which had confused them even further, but the reasons why were allowed to remain mysterious for the time being. It was still too soon after the slaughter at the Eaglesreach for them to be entirely comfortable around her, knowing what they now did, and prying into her past and beliefs was simply too dangerous when on such an important mission.
The only major flaw in their plan, when all was said and done, was Isolde. The hat`s magic could make Aidan seem drow, Embla was more than capable of appearing a mindless brute, and Brokk`s withered body made him seem less true dwarf and more duergar or derro...but there was no disguising that Isolde was a halfling. At least not, as Brokk explained glumly, without wrapping her in the same kind of illusory magic as would be shielding Aidan, and would probably stand out as a concerning quantity of active magical energy to any watchful spell-wards at their destination.
"One man with drawn sword and whetstone may simply be a weapons-conscientious warrior," he had said. "A dozen of the same are clearly hiding something. If I hide Isolde behind more illusions, we run the risk of something noticing we are hiding something behind illusions. But she did convince the traitor Siegfried of Arden that she was an agent of the East. I have faith that she can convince the lich`s minions that she is much the same."
Aidan and Embla echoed this sentiment. No less reluctantly than Aidan had practiced his unpleasant knowledge of the Dark Speech, Isolde practiced the mannerisms of the servants of Sin. As a former gutter runner of Zel City, slipping unnoticed through the filth of street and society alike, she had had plenty of opportunities to observe the cruel masters of the Occupied Kingdoms. It went about as well as Aidan`s linguistics, but there were no other practical choices.
All that remained now was to wait until dusk and make their next move.
Overseer Gevan glared at the messenger goblin that had dared to disturb him, and was not mollified in the least to see the filthy little beast shrink away from him. The message itself was not doing anything for his mood either, but he knew better than to ignore it, or worse still, delegate. That was how the previous overseer had failed in his duty, letting Gevan replace him one night.
Such simple mistakes were never going to be made by Gevan, he had assured his new workforce, watching their faces carefully as he hung his predecessor on the gibbet, and noting which of them he would need to have his loyalists purge. There would be no opportunities given to the faithless or the ambitious to see him brought low in their lord's estimation.
So as he stood now, on the edge of the garrison camp that kept Dessingrove under control, watching the strange four who had emerged out of the twilit east, Gevan made absolutely sure to keep his archers where he could see them - and sent forward silver-tongued and shifty-eyed Reinhardt as his mouthpiece.
Gevan told himself he would have taken such precautions no matter who approached. It was mostly true. The real oddity in those he had to deal with was the halfling. The others looked as though they made some sort of sense. Especially the dark elf, for all that he wore a feathered hat that was truly ridiculous, and was thus obviously magical.
There was also a pale hunched creature of dwarf-ilk, perhaps a derro to judge by its hairlessness, and a mage to judge by its robes. This was perched atop a study palanquin on the back and shoulders of a true beast. Gevan had never seen its like, but could tell it was from a far more distant realm than the others. Battle-smart, to judge from the glitter of its eyes in torchlight, sizing up everything as possible foe. Ah, but Gevan could see the ropes binding the huge sword to its wrist, making the weapon more of a bludgeon than a carving tool - he knew some trolls that had needed the same precaution to stop them from dropping their weapons out of sheer stupidity, even in the midst of battle.
But that halfling...it was she who had him most suspicious. The brave face she was putting on did not surprise Gevan in the slightest, for by reputation he knew the race to be remarkably courageous for their size and weakness. What did surprise him was the cold arrogance she exuded, more palpably than even the drow.
Reinhardt, a turncoat captain of Wyvernia still useful to Gevan only because of his gift of tongues, stood before the silent quartet at last. He took a moment to decide which of them was the leader - the dark dwarf, clearly, mounted atop his ogre-human warbeast - and which of them was the mouthpiece of the same. He decided on the drow, and bowed to him with only a hint of mocking.
After that, things happened almost too quickly for Gevan to follow. Reinhardt began to speak, obviously, in passable Mordularian. The halfling had laughed horribly, deep in her throat. For a moment the drow had stood as if carved from stone, face a blank slate upon which to fashion any expression the mason pleased. Then his left hand closed upon Reinhardt's throat and began to squeeze.
The treacherous Kelerite struggled as he was fully lifted from the ground, his entire weight hanging from his neck, but to no avail. This drow was deceptively strong, and Gevan noted the handle of a heavy weapon peeking out from his back. It looked like it belonged to a warhammer, or some similarly weighty tool of death. An uncommon weapon for one of the dark elves, but it spoke volumes as to the brutality of its owner. Or perhaps, the usual resilience of its victims.
In the Dark Tongue, not Mordularian, the drow growled with uttermost loathing: "You do not speak in that language to me. Sully my ears with one more word and I shall see you live."
Gevan was almost entirely convinced. Drow were notoriously proud folk. This one spoke the Dark Tongue with just the barest hint of an accent, as he would have expected, and Reinhardt's bulging eyes and purpling tongue proved that the man's grasp of their twisted speech was not so great as he had believed. The sincere threat of keeping him alive, no doubt in the exquisite agony that only a drow torturer could devise, further served to persuade Gevan as to the genuineness of what he was seeing.
Still, this was no reason to lose a useful interpreter. He raised his arm, signaling the archers. Forty arrowheads and thirty bolts shifted their gaze to the four intruders. The dark dwarf murmured in warning as his mount trembled in anticipation of bloodshed, subduing it with his command. Gevan noted that none of them seemed even to notice death staring them down. Then the halfling woman, seeming so very ordinary but for that coldness, looked straight at him.
"Do not waste your ammunition," she said, speaking in Kelevan, and in the cultured tones of nobility, for the obvious benefit of the garrison troops. "This one will be allowed to die before the night is young."
Gevan frowned, started to protest the loss of his man, when the halfling imperiously, dismissively, waved a hand at him: "I am not accustomed to repeating myself. Never to the living." Gevan considered this for a moment, then slowly lowered his arm. His archers lowered their weapons. A short while later, Reinhardt's corpse was lowered to the ground.
"My girl can dispose of that if you prefer," the dark dwarf spoke up now, and his mount rumbled agreeably beneath him.
Gevan resisted the urge to shudder. He believed the implication absolutely, and knew that he would need to show himself, if not the equal of these horrors, then at least not so far beneath them that they might entertain themselves with him before leaving. They were obviously here to speak with his lord. Arrangements would need to be made. But first...
"I will have it thrown to the worgs," Overseer Gevan stated in his best commanding voice. "After it has hung above their pens for a few days. Animals are more amusing when kept hungry."
The dark dwarf smiled knowingly, and patted his own humanoid mount with distant affection. Gevan swallowed hard.
It was difficult to hide his nerves. Adventurers were one thing any military man knew to be wary of - and in Gevan's time he had encountered more than his fair share of those impulsive and unpredictable destroyers seeking to upset the balance in Dessingrove - but these four were of the east, and thus even more terrible.
There was also the matter of his, quite reasonable really, armed precautions upon their arrival. He needed to ingratiate himself with them lest they hold too much of a grudge. His own tent was scarcely a palace, but it was far more comfortable than anywhere else in the garrison, and after any length of journey, a good host made sure his guests were treated and fed well. The second of these things was already underway as Gevan saw them settle into his cushioned chairs - with the exception of the dark dwarf's mount, which stood facing outwards, watching for threats to its (no, Gevan reminded himself, her, for this was a female) master.
"If I may be so bold," he started to ask, hesitating as the drow`s eyes flickered over to him for a moment. "But from which of the realms do you hail? There has been little word out of the east for many years now and I must confess to ignorance regarding its affairs."
An uncomfortable silence, before the drow shifted slightly in his seat. "Orland," he stated simply, as if daring Gevan to question him further.
The halfling woman answered next, her tone dripping with the suggestion that the overseer ought to know this already: "Zeland."
The dark dwarf, by far the most amiable, gave his own answer: "Farland."
Gevan shivered as all three, moving and speaking as one, inclined their heads to the last of their party. "Beyond."
It was a word replete with horrific implication, for beyond Farland there was only the Wintervale, and its slave-nations collared to its whims. Gevan considered himself respectably sturdy of spirit, but the mere mention of that dreaded land was enough to freeze the blood of any right-thinking creature. He was not one of the few privy to the secret knowledge that his lich master only paid lip-service to the Wintervale, and indeed hoped to supplant it one day. If he had been, Gevan would have been at even less ease.
The tension in the air was relaxed slightly as his goblins wheeled in a respectable meal, steaming deliciously and smelling of fine spices. Though they were not especially good at it, the goblins knew enough protocol to serve the guests first, and Gevan second. When everything was arranged just so, they bowed their most servile bow and backed out of sight.
Gevan tried to smile, introducing the dishes and adding, "From my own personal supply, of course. The chains of commanding are sometimes lightened, though less oft...forgive me, is there something amiss?"
For the first time he had seen thus far, drow and halfling both wore their own smiles. Their right hands hovered over the food, its steam wrapping around their fingers, coiling through the simple iron ring that each wore. Suddenly Gevan felt extremely vulnerable.
"Popular among the goblins, are we?" the drow asked, dangerously lightly, his smile stretching to either ear, and even the woman-mount turned her colossal head a fraction at his gentle tone.
Gevan stared blankly for a moment. Then he leapt to his feet with a cry of horrified understanding, dashing the plates to the floor, spilling their contents. He cursed himself for his stupidity, for of course the cowardly, deceitful, ungrateful goblins would have sought to kill off both him and his illustrious guests all at once. But with poison, in food? No drow could be caught out by poison, less still a halfling deceived by impure food! The rings they wore must merely be minor magical tools to confirm their suspicions.
"Mayhap you should restore order in your house, overseer," the halfling stated as she stood up. "It would not do for your lord to be disturbed by this."
Gevan nodded frantically, then more slowly, with growing determination. This was a chance to prove himself, earn some measure of recognition for his steady and authoritative judgement. Sternly, he called his goblins back and glared at their wondering, false innocence at their wasted culinary efforts. Before they could come to their senses, he drew his sword and cut down the first of them with a single blow. The others gaped at him in shock, then fled terror-struck into the night, shrieking that he had gone mad. Vengeful, hateful, the overseer pursued, bellowing to all those loyal to him to rise up and scour the traitors from life.
But even when Gevan had gone, and they were left alone, the four friends did not breathe any sigh of relief, less still show any outward sign of being anything other than what they had claimed to be. Until they were actually far from Dessingrove, they were not who they truly were. Still, the first two parts of their plan had been successfully enacted. They had infiltrated the garrison, and now were able to leave it in shambles, tearing itself apart. The simple implication of poison had been enough. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant.
Next though, was the far more daunting task of entering Carn Marrot, the lair of the lich himself.
"You do not understand. I do not obey you. I am no plaything to be made to submit to your will. You have no invitation. My gate stays closed. You stay there and wait, or leave. Can you understand that, sewer elf?"
His ultimatum issued, Sheddai ignored the other three, especially the arrogant hositan wench that thought her distant manner intimidating, in favor of glaring at the lowest of the filth beyond his gate. The drow, for his part, scarcely looked him up and down before dismissing the watchman and his protests. From other exits to the keep and adjoining barracks, officers led their troops out to quell the chaos that had suddenly erupted in the garrison below.
A few might have paused to inspect the newcomers, but for the knowledge that any delay would bring them to the attention of their lord`s esteemed guest, who had personally flown ahead to take command. It was left to the least of them, watchmen and gatekeepers such as Sheddai, to ensure nobody unwanted gained entry to Carn Marrot.
"Open the doors, boy, before we do," the halfling instructed him coldly. "We have business with your master and shall brook no further delays due to the incompetence of the minions of his lackeys. I am unaccustomed to repeating myself to the living, yet here we are."
Sheddai continued to ignore her, keeping his hate focused on the drow, who at last deigned to speak: "I should say that we are this restrained only out of courtesy to your true father."
This was a new thing, and Sheddai blinked in confusion, trying to work out the meaning behind the statement. His befuddlement was too obvious to miss, and the halfling barked a harsh, derisive laugh at the expression he wore. She spoke a word that Sheddai did not know, but clearly meant to refer to him, and the drow sighed impatiently.
"The tone of your skin, the angle of your eyes, the shine of your hair, the curve of your ears," he listed rapidly, and Sheddai knew that he could not hide his nature from this one. "You are dultan, seeded by drow. Not in the last generation, or the previous, for your pure features are too slight. Three generations back, however, that would do it. Your true father, a pure drow, sired your now-diluted bloodline. You would be dead already for this insolence if you had any less of his gloried self in you."
"And no, your ancestor could not be a woman. Not even the most delightfully twisted of my sisters would birth a half-breed. Such is the purpose of the lesser races. This said, I am becoming, hmm, what emotion is most apt - bored, shall we say? - of your limited education. Will you show some intellect and allow your superior passage? Or shall I distract myself with your flesh for a while?"
Sheddai glowered back: "Fine, I admit it. I am drow-blooded, and you think this makes me less than you. You do not understand that this has made me stronger than you, better than you. I belong to no people save my own, and what is given to you freely, I had to fight for. I say again, and more clearly now. Begone, or rot where you stand."
The drow looked at him blankly. The air grew thick with imminent violence. Even the sounds of fighting, dying, cursing, burning from the garrison seemed to fade away. Then there came a faint pattering of feet from behind Sheddai, overlaying a swish-scrape-swish-scrape of something being dragged along the floor. Unexpectedly, and not a little disturbingly, the huge humanoid being used as a mobile platform by the dwarf made an excited, high-pitched cooing noise; and Sheddai felt his sleeve being picked at by a tiny hand.
Familiar with this scenario from his training, Sheddai kept his eyes on the four and half-knelt so that the messenger kobold at his side could whisper its message to him. Instead, he felt a sharp coldness slip between the gap in his armor and his armpit, the small but deadly blade avoiding the ribs perfectly to sever the major arteries and puncture his lung so that he could not even call for help.
He collapsed, the life draining from him quickly, and the startled gasps of the four outside told him at least that this was not part of any plan to infiltrate or assault Carn Marrot. In this regard, at least, he had not failed in his duty. When he saw the gate he was charged to watch over swing open, and the kobold traitor flee back into the keep's interior, Sheddai made one final effort to heave himself upright and protect the sanctuary of his master.
He fell back, too weak. Shadowy figures passed by him, though one lingered for a while. His vision failing as quickly as his heart, it took some seconds for the figure to resolve itself into that of the drow. Sheddai fancied he saw a measure of pity in those eyes, but even he knew that was impossible. No drow could feel pity, or remorse, or love, and he hated them more than ever, and this one most of all for mocking his death in such a way.
"You...do not...you...still..." Sheddai managed to gasp, the last of his life ebbing away.
"Oh but I do," whispered the drow too softly for any other to hear. "I understand you full well, shadow-cousin."
Aidan was quite sure that if he lived to be a thousand, he could never get used to the sound he heard once again at his door. Gently, but firmly, he extricated himself from Mariana`s arms, paying no heed to her indignant surprise. Steeling himself for what he knew was coming, he opened the door. The two dark-haired maidens outside at once rushed in to embrace him, tears streaming from their eyes.
"He just brought another home, smiling and laughing all the while," the smaller of them sobbed into his bare chest.
"It`s not even been a month yet!" the taller added between miserable sniffs.
Sitting up on the bed, incensed by what she thought she was seeing, Mariana hurled an accusatory shriek at Aidan`s back, so angry that her outrage was almost wordless. She knew that she was just a crofter`s daughter, no great beauty to be swooned over, but she had enough of the old pride of Orland in her blood still to resent being treated this way. To be cast aside so readily for a pair of pale-skinned waifs, chattering in that strange elven tongue! When her nearly-paramour did not respond, Mariana followed up by demanding an immediate and extremely good explanation.
"My sisters are in pain!" Aidan snapped over his shoulder. "This is a family matter, Mariana."
She stiffened, insulted. "They look nothing like you. Do you call all elves family, then, or just the ones in wispish cloths that are eager to cling to you? And here I thought you were better than the rest, but no! I see you are just the same, helpless when any bitch in heat knocks on-"
His face darkening with an anger that chilled her to silence, Aidan interrupted savagely: "Mariana, for all that I think I love you, I want nothing more at this moment than your silence. If you cannot give me that, leave. Between my feelings for you and my duty to my sisters, I will choose the latter. Without hesitation."
Mariana hid her hurt beneath her anger well, even when she stormed out, looking Aidan in the eye as she cursed him for his fickleness. Her parents had been right to warn her off his charming facade. All elves, they had said, were the same when you came right down to it. Some were dark of skin and silver of hair and ruled from the cities they had enslaved, others were pale and fair and hid from their greater kin, but in spirit they were identical. Opposite sides of the same coin, but struck from the same material.
Though just as hurt by her decision, Aidan did not watch her go. He had made his choice too, and it was more important to give comfort to those in need of it than to dwell on what could have been. Years past he too had been in the same position as his weeping younger sisters, and it had been the duty of his elder siblings to comfort him then.
For some minutes, the three held each other, and Aidan lent the others his strength, so that they might grieve freely and emerge on the other side of sorrow. In time, he had no doubt, they would need to do the same and so carry on this sad tradition of their family. With the loving tenderness of one who had suffered as they now did, he kissed their brows and wiped their cheeks dry until their breaths at last slowed to some measure of calm.
"I am always honest with you, aren`t I?" Aidan asked softly, and they nodded up at him, bravely trying to smile. "It will always hurt. But even so, recall what I said? Pain fades until good memories are most of what remains. If even humans can manage this, then surely we can too, right? Right. Now, shall we go and speak to him? It may work this time."
It would definitely not work this time. This, Aidan could surmise the instant he spotted the decanter. It held eylafion, the Ranarim Swanswine, or rather had held it. Now it was empty, meaning that both had imbibed enough to render moral thought a fantasy. They were in such high spirits that they had not even noticed they were being watched. Nevertheless, Aidan tried his best, as was part of their sad tradition.
"Not going to introduce her to us, da?" he asked as lightly as he could. "I`m a little upset by that. And Saoirse and Siobhan are very, very upset."
Their father looked up from the ample bosom he had been nuzzling into, grinning widely and unashamedly. The woman stopped her delighted giggles, wondering why he had stopped, and belatedly coming to the realization. Neither made any concerted, or effective, effort at covering themselves. Aidan felt his jaw tighten involuntarily as the lecherous old man - and he was old now, for all that he did not seem to be by human standards - sat upright, though a bit unsteadily.
"Aidan! Ha, my boy, I thought you were with...that fishergirl. No? Not a fishergirl, a huntress? Crofter, maybe? Fine young thing anyway, shame you saw her before me. What? Oh, yes. Of course, introtudions. Introdashish. Wait, I know this one. In-tro-duc-tions. That`s the, the thing, that I said I knew that I did."
The intoxicated pair laughed merrily, collapsing into each other. Aidan`s face was as stone, but somehow he kept his temper and waited, though less than patiently.
"This lovely little lass is Aurelia, which is almost like the Orland version of mine," his father, Aurthelin, finally managed to slur out. "That there is my boy, Aidan. He likes that name, no really, he does. I prefer the old way of saying it, but he`s grown now so he gets to pick for himself. See the resemblance, do you? He`ll be a real heart-breaker once he settles down. His mother`s hair, but he got my strong chin, flashing eyes. Maybe something else the girls love too, ha!"
"Girls. Girls? Wait, Aidan, did you say something about - oh, there they are. Hiding behind you. Aurelia, those are my girls. Beautiful, aren`t they? The taller one, with that cute little snub nose is Siobhan. You`d like her, she has an eye for embroidery like you. And Saoirse is the younger. Voice to charm the birds out of trees, but never uses it, even if I ask nicely. You`ll love them, Aurelia. Get to know them better still after I marry you like I promised."
Aidan, bridling beyond his self-restraint, began to rant: "Saoirse is the taller and older, da. She no longer sings because the sickness that nearly killed her also robbed her of that gift. Yes, Siobhan has an eye for embroidery, but only because their mother took it up after she was born. You do remember their mother Livia, da, don`t you?"
Somehow he resisted the urge to struck their father when he saw the absence of any recollection in his eyes.
"Livia? Livia who you barely saw in the last fifteen years because she grew grey and wrinkled and you did not. Livia who we buried scarce three weeks gone, and you nowhere to be seen. Off wooing this replacement, or perhaps several, knowing you. As you did with my mother Caitlin before her, and Martina before her, and Carys before her. Those are just the ones I know of, lady Aurelia. He married them all and mourned each with a new girl, didn`t you, da? Easier to forget a human love than an elven one."
Aurthelin looked at his stone-faced son and red-eyed daughters blankly. Half next to and half beneath him, the pretty and buxom Aurelia almost managed a frown, before reaching around and tweaking the tips of his ears playfully. With a salacious grin, Aurthelin dived back into her chest, his children already forgotten.
Aidan turned his head away, defeated, himself near to tears. He put his arms around his sisters to escort them away. He spoke for all of them as he whispered, "I still love you, da, but Heshtail forgive me, you make it so difficult."
Six somber faces stared at the untouched food laid out on the table. Two others, identical in shape as well as expression, gazed out of the window across the treetops, taking in the rich summer smell of the Luvam. For all that they were merely half-elven, born of Aurthelin`s many dalliances with human women over the decades, the Luvam invigorated them as much as any true elf.
Even the Dark Conquest had barely touched the interior of this forest, still shielded from outside evils by the ancestral wards laid down by the first elves to isolate themselves here; long before they became known as ranarim, the Sunder Elves, a splinter race that had grown so insular and xenophobic that it had even cast out Aurthelin, one of its own, to the very boundary of the Luvam when his preference for humans was discovered.
For his children, this had meant a lifetime growing up with a succession of different wives and little contact with anyone else, save for a few Orlander villagers who subsisted on the edges of the forest. It was a miracle that any of them had turned out as well as they had. Now, once again, the time had come for some to leave the family house and move into the family home.
"We can take all three of you," said the oldest of them, Aisling, repeated. "We added on four rooms in readiness when you were born, Aidan, just in case. It is not a question of room. You don`t have to go a-wandering in search of the secret temples."
The twins, Riordan and Carwyn, laughed mirthlessly from their seats by the window. Aisling gave each a sharp clout in warning, which they duly ignored. They knew as well as anyone that there was no point in trying to persuade Aidan otherwise, and their cynical sense of humor did not allow them to keep entirely silent about that. The fact that even they, self-admitted cowards at heart, had not been able to resist leaving the Luvam meant that there was not much in the way of an argument that Aidan could.
"Aidan, if you won`t listen to me, no matter how much you ought to," Aisling tried a new tactic. "Then will you listen to Aoife? She`s spent longer out there than the rest of us combined. She reached the outskirts of the Summervale itself, for love of the Swan! She knows more than-"
"More than you do as well, sister," Aoife interrupted, to grudging acknowledgement. "I shall give to Aidan what you did for Breifne, and what he did for me. Maps, advice, and my love. Those, along with our faith in the gods, are all that we can trust in to see him through. It has been enough for us so far, hasn`t it? We have all returned who left the Luvam."
Nonetheless, they all cast surreptitious glances at the last of their siblings, the heavily scarred and utterly silent Breifne. He had gone east, unlike the others, and what struggles he had faced there had nearly ended him, body and mind. Even so, when he had crawled back into the protection of the forest, barely clinging onto life, his eyes had blazed with a surety of purpose that had inspired others to see for themselves what had become of the wider world and how they might change it for the better.
"Besides, it is high time that Aidan went on his own pilgrimage," Aoife continued. "Saoirse and Siobhan are barely past twenty, far too young to leave. You are too young, sisters, and pouting like that does not help your case. Aidan is twice your age and, just barely, mature enough. If he can avoid climbing trees for the fun of it, that is."
"My balance has improved since last year," Aidan protested weakly, over the closest thing to genuine laughter his brothers and sisters could muster. "And I already know where I will go. Aisling, you said that those clerics you escorted into Zeland knew of a place to establish their hidden temple? I will start there. And by our mothers, I will return to you. After all, you can`t just miss me out when you meet our newest friend. Da has probably already made them with his new wife."
The seven, even Breifne, shook their heads at that, in mingled acceptance and disappointment. Then they stood, surrounding their dear youngest brother, and held him close. Tears were shed. When the last of them fell, and the huddle was broken, it was understood that it would be many years hence before they were all together again.
They sat back down, and one more time, broke bread together.
For all that they were absolutely going to adhere to every aspect of their plan, right up until doing so was obviously not to be helpful, there remained one overwhelmingly urgent question that simply could not wait until they were all out of Carn Marrot and in some relatively safer area - and so long as Brokk asked it, any remote observation of them would not necessarily be able to pierce their disguises.
"Do I just hear you make a happy noise when you saw that kobold?" Brokk demanded incredulously of Embla, and she nodded her head, smiling broadly. "Why would...what were...how is that...just why?"
Her answer was a simple and guileless: "Is much cute."
Isolde clapped both hands to her head, a pained whine struggling out from gritted teeth, and Aidan nearly tripped over his own feet in confusion. Of all the words they had ever used, or heard used, to describe kobolds, 'cute' had never been one of them. The little reptilians, even at their tallest being smaller than the average halfling, were typically considered lower than even goblins or the snog slave-caste of orcs among the dark folk, and treated as little better than pests by their own ostensible allies.
There were certainly more questions raised by Embla`s answer, but now was not the time for them. The group were on a very strict time limit here, and in the far distance they could just hear the sound of the keep`s forces restoring order to the garrison. Without further ado, they pressed on through the open doors at the far end of the foyer - Isolde leading the way and pointing out the discharged magical trap that had been placed upon the doors, deducing its existence by the horrified facial expression of the unmarked corpse lying across the threshold - and into the great hall beyond.
Here, they stopped and stared about in confusion. The great hall was the aftermath of a bloody battle, gore-splattered corpses strewn about in piles, most of them kobolds, outnumbering the orcs by about seven to one. At one end, a magnificent tapestry blazed with fires that did not actually consume its fabric, and a similarly impressive mirror stood at the other, gilded in silver and gold, and its surface streaked with dark blood.
"If we weren`t in such a hurry..." Isolde murmured, eyeing it almost lustfully.
Now that they were actually inside Carn Marrot, the four friends could hear newer, closer sounds of battle, seemingly located somewhere underfoot, in some unknown lower reach of the keep. Disregarding that for the moment, Isolde knelt by one of the piles, carefully examining the bodies. With even greater care, she plucked a tiny dart, no longer than her little finger, from the nape of a heavyset orc. The congealed substance on its tip was not blood.
She frowned, as much in wonder as in confusion: "The kobolds are rebelling..."
In the maze of tunnels below the keep, known as the Undercarn, the vast majority of the lich's forces were coming dangerously close to tearing themselves apart. Only the constant bellowed commands of their oluk captains kept the wrathful army from turning on itself in paranoia. Every so often, there were squeals and screams as the treacherous kobolds struck out from their own minute tunnel system, many dying before they could flee back into it, but always leaving behind dead or crippled - and formerly invaluable - soldiers, oftentimes even one of the officers or veterans.
If it had been any other faction that had rebelled, the fight would already have been over. Unfortunately, the very thing that had made the kobolds be overlooked as a threat for so long - being the smallest and weakest of the troops - had meant that nobody actually knew which of the regular tunnels were lined by those of the kobolds. Any one of them might have dozens or even hundreds of murder holes along its length, through which the kobolds could blow darts and loose bolts, and disappear into their unmapped and, to the larger soldiers, unnavigable maze before anyone could break through the walls.
From his own murder hole, Bukki took careful aim, puffed up his cheeks, and blew out the dart. Its sharp tip barely pricked the thick skin of its target, a mage-warped ogre with an extra pair of claw-tipped arms, but this was enough to deliver its poison into the bloodstream. The monstrous ogre did not even notice the attack. Instead, its attention shifted to an oluk that had a very irritating face. There was a strange heat coursing through its veins as it glared at the unsuspecting oluk, fueling its rage.
Thirty seconds after the dart had struck it, the ogre snarled viciously, and turned on the oluk, ripping at it in a maddened rage. The rest of the brigade ignored the shrieks of their luckless companion, knowing it was too late for him, and turned their blades on the deranged ogre itself. Once it too had been felled, their captain drove them onward without a second glance at the shredded corpses.
Bukki wished that his people had been able to stockpile more of this toxin. It was far too difficult to procure except by theft, and taking too much at one time would only have brought suspicion down on them. Fewer than fifty darts could be treated with it in total. Once those had been used up, the kobolds had needed to rely on more regular skirmish tactics to harass the soldiers.
So far this was proving to be a bloodier engagement than he had hoped for, but it would all be worth it if the strange quartet he had spied on earlier completed their task. He was not sure quite what that task was. He also did not care, and neither did the rest of the kobolds after he had told them what he had heard.
Bukki was aware that the rest of the world, to an extent quite correctly, regarded kobolds as stupid or unimaginative creatures. Things that mattered though, that really mattered, were preserved in their memories and passed down through the generations. Bukki`s tribe owed a debt that could not be easily repaid, and the adventurers trying their luck in Carn Marrot were agents of the one to whom that debt was owed.
Nearly two-thirds of the tribe could be sacrificed in this battle, and still have numbers enough to recover. The mated females had already escaped with the tribe`s eggs to safety. Even if every single one of the kobolds left behind died, it would not matter. The tribe would endure. The tribe would remember. And in time, the tribe would heal.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Embla pulled herself free of the straps and setting down the platform she had borne thus far. It had indeed been an honor to use her strength in service to Brokk, whom she would have respected the most of all her companions even if he had not been a master of the Clever Craft; but it had also been very uncomfortable and would have made it difficult to fight effectively.
She still needed to play the part of dumb muscle, but whilst they were within Carn Marrot, there was simply not enough room for Brokk to be carried on her back. He could walk now, making good use of his own wizardly robes to convey a sense of power and importance. She and Aidan would be at his side, as befitted such a mage`s most loyal servitors, whilst Isolde stayed a few feet ahead to act as his mouthpiece - or, in actuality, to be a scout and trap-finder.
Based on what little information they had been able to glean about Carn Marrot, they would now need to reach the upper levels, where the lich kept his study and more valuable prisoners, and avoid the numerous undead horrors that had been bound to his service over the years, otherwise they risked becoming overwhelmed.
The first of these goals was going remarkably well, for Isolde had almost immediately located a stairway leading upwards, and between her experience and one of Brokk`s divinations, the apparent absence of any active trap placed upon it meant that the group had no better alternative than to use it. As for the second goal, the kobold rebellion seemed to have done its bit to help them here as well, luring away most things that might otherwise have stood in their way.
The moment they stepped through the door at the top, they were assailed by a coldness that was utterly alien to the mortal world, crashing against their souls in waves, trying to leech them of any will to survive. Though otherwise utterly bare, the stone hall in which they now found themselves did have one feature that was impossible to miss, and was clearly the source of the horrible ambience.
In the center of the southern wall was a large ovular portal, just big enough to admit Embla, ringed with brass plates that crawled with powerful warding inscriptions. A blackness wholly unnatural and inimical to life was on the other side, a blackness that was all the more terrible for its utter stillness and silence, a blackness that had nothing to do with reality as any of them understood it.
Above this portal, fixed to the wall with iron spikes through his limbs, mounted like the trophy he was, was a husk of a man that twitched and writhed in interminable agony. Briefly, his eyes opened to stare wildly about, seeing nothing behind the haze of torture, then closed again. Here, for the last seven hundred years, had hung Harald Thodricsson, last of the great barons of Kelerak, exposed to the void.
As the others gazed upon this dreadful sight, each coming to terms with its enormity in their own way, Embla instead turned her eyes to the portal. Her scars began to ache, as if still fresh. She knew that if she looked, they would be flaring up brightly as the blood rushed past the old wounds. This would normally only happen when her heart was beating especially quickly, but right now it was calm.
Her eyes looked beyond the mortal world, into the next, where a self-proclaimed god of death held grim court. Somewhere behind her ears, not quite so deep as her mind, she fancied she could hear the echo of her heartbeat, in perfect and impossible synchronicity to her own.
Embla knew then what this portal was, and knew that this understanding was limited to her. Given time, Brokk could determine its nature in other ways, no doubt, given his intelligence and learning. At this precise moment, however, she was one of only a very few who could see it for what it was. The intimate understanding of death, of finality, was perhaps the most important lesson taught to Aslaug....
Few were able to befriend a Risarvinni, even if they were sincere in their efforts. It came almost naturally to a nemedene, however, and neither race thought that strange. Both were of similar sizes and strengths, with similar outlooks and tendencies; and more importantly, both were generally seen as unnaturally strange by many of their neighbors.
Nemedenes were victims of this prejudice on account of their physicality. Most people were understandably nervous around a creature that looked like it should be some kind of stone golem, but was actually flesh and blood; and made almost entirely of muscle and sinew. Many found the long tendrils that trailed down from a nemedene`s hairless scalp to be especially unsettling, for all that they were only used to store fat.
Risarvinnae, conversely, looked almost like oversized humans, but with them it was their mentality that proved to be more unnerving. Even their children had minds that were sealed into place with near-fanatical certainties, casually dismissing the truths of the world in favor of their people`s bizarre teachings without a second thought, and so eager to act in the manner of the adults that they were known to trail hunters or work in the mines of their own accord.
But between each other, in these highest places of the world where the sun scorched and the night wind chilled with equal ferocity, there was a harmony and cooperation seen in few other places. Nemedenes who in ages past would have been left to die alone, unable to keep up with the rest of the clan, could today live out the rest of their lives with a Risarvinni tribe as a valued teacher or child-minder, treated with the same respect and courtesy as if they had been born to the tribe.
So it was on this day, when the venerable Kaal Most-Ancient at last succumbed to his old age, that the children in his care did not scream and run from the towering dire bear that had proven the swifter and hurled him aside, but instead crowded around his broken body to try and lift him to safety.
And one of them, a little girl barely seven years old, stood apart from the rest, glowering at the beast that had hurt her favorite teacher. She held a big stick that might have been meant as a spear in her games. The dire bear was five times her size, twelve times her weight, and protected by fur and hide thick enough to deflect a real spear. Even so, she felt no fear for herself, only for her friends and teacher.
She knew her duty. It had been recited to her daily since her birth, alongside rules and judgements that had stood the test of time, from every tribe across the Greatwall Mountains that were their home. The unbreakable Risarvinni conviction that was her birth right gave her strength now. Protect the tribe, was her commandment, and she would obey.
The dire bear was on all fours now, lumbering forward slowly. It had been hungry enough to attack in the first place, and now could smell blood. It had no real interest in the small creatures that crowded about its intended meal, for they had so little meat on their bones that there was no real point to eating them. Maybe if winter was on its way, but it was high summer now, and the dire bear had no need to fatten up for hibernation.
As with many bears, its vision was not the best, and it relied on smell far more than even hearing. It could smell fear welling up from the blurred shapes in front of it. One small shape lacked this smell, however, and it was actually approaching the dire bear. The dire bear hardly noticed, and cared still less. There was nothing in these mountains that could harm it except for another dire bear, or the great beasts that did nothing but graze and were thus no threat to it.
Furiously, the girl began to beat at the immense creature with her stick, jabbing and striking with crude techniques that showed some training in spear-fighting. With a snort, the dire bear pushed past her, still far more interested in the broken, bloody nemedene that had smelled the slowest and weakest of its potential prey. The girl leapt in closer, now trying to stab out the beast`s eyes, blocking the bear`s path entirely.
The stick broke in her hands. It was, after all, just a stick. The bear did not care about this, however, and lowered its great head to seize this offending insect. Its jaws closed around the girl`s arm, piercing the flesh and shattering the bone without even feeling it. Then, much like a dog with a rat, it began to shake its catch from side to side.
Death hovered at the edge of her consciousness. It waited, patient, inexorable, a presence more keenly felt than even the pain surging through her body, searing her nerves and shaking her bones from each other. There could be no escape from this trap. Still, had she not done her duty? Had she not done her utmost to protect the tribe? She thought she had. She could die peacefully knowing this.
Limply, her life draining from her slowly, she hung in the dire bear`s mouth. Her eyes looked beyond the mortal world into the next, where a self-proclaimed god of death held grim court. Somewhere behind her ears, not quite so deep as her mind, she fancied she could hear the echo of her heartbeat, in perfect and impossible synchronicity to her own.
It was enough to remind her that she yet lived. She could be forgiven for not fighting only after she had died. With the last of her strength, she twisted in the beast`s mouth, and opened her own. Her child`s teeth closed on the sensitive muzzle, many breaking loose. The dire bear scarcely noticed the bite, but nevertheless dropped its prey in surprise. Seconds later, panting heavily, blood pouring from its mouth, it too sank to the ground.
Tharym Aslaug completed her incantation, and nodded in satisfaction as her magic finished knitting the broken nemedene together. He would be more watchful the next time he took the children exploring beyond the tribe`s boundaries. Still, his decision to do so had been encouraged in the hope of this exact outcome.
She stood, her duty here fulfilled, and motioned to the children. They laughed happily and once more crowded around Kaal Most-Ancient, delighted to see him still alive. He and they were no longer Tharym`s concern. That was now the girl who had done her duty, who had risked her life to protect her tribe against an enemy that she had no hope of defeating, and who had nearly paid for this valour with her life.
The Aslaug that had felled the dire bear, their mighty barbed spears still piercing its lungs and heart, were with her now. They were not congratulating her exactly, at least not in the way that most cultures understood it. Perhaps an oluk commander might have seen similarities, or a monastic hermit with his apprentices. Either way, by the time they done, the girl would have started to learn how not to repeat the mistakes she made against her opponent.
Eventually Tharym approached the group, seating herself just slightly apart until the instruction was complete. All but one of her fellow Aslaug now took their leave, retrieving their weapons and heading back to their own regions, for there were always more trials to be overseen and more judgements to be passed across the tribes.
Now it was the turn of the girl to speak, to thank Tharym for healing her wounds, replenishing her body, saving her life at the very last moment, and for letting her bring back the lesson she had been taught. That even death was an acceptable price to pay for ensuring the safety of the tribe was a lesson that a dead person could learn, but could not thence apply.
Tharym acknowledged this graciously and dismissed the girl, who had proven herself worthy of salvation as a potential future Aslaug. If she had not, then death would have been allowed to claim her. Some years were especially bad for this, and far too many had to die for failing in this trial. It always hurt the Aslaug who saw this, lying in wait, ready to strike and slay whatever threat they had allowed to come so close, but enduring that was a part of their struggle too.
Tharym watched the girl skip happily over to her friends, showing off her new scars with pride, then glanced over at the remaining Aslaug, the most senior and respected of them. "So what do you think?"
"A few more like her, and we might even see her generation topple the Pretender. Can you see it, Tharym? In your mind`s eye. The wailing of the false as their so-called One God is torn asunder, reduced to naught. The feel on our skins of the same fires that consume their cities, boiling their blood before we even spill it. Death unleashed upon the unbelieving world. The Jailor Grlarshh called forth and trampled beneath us. And after that, our time will truly come."
"Some days, sister-wife, you scare even me," Tharym commented lightly. "And yet have I not also heard our husband`s beating heart across the divide of worlds?"
To this, Embla Aslaug just smiled the frightening Risarvinni smile.
In the devastated garrison camp, a very humbled Gevan knelt before his lord`s fuming guest, too frightened to protest the accusations of incompetence and stupidity being hurled at him. He might have had the courage had it been one of the oluks. The greater orcs were intimidating creatures to be sure, but they were only mortal, a trait that had once even belonged to his dread lord.
The same was not true for the otherworldly entity that hovered before him, its small size and fragile appearance belying resilience and experience beyond that of ordinary creatures. The horrors its eyes had beheld were infinitely greater and more terrible than anything Gevan (And perhaps even his master? he dared to wonder) would ever have to endure.
"Now stop your groveling and explain yourself!" it finally commanded.
Gevan gabbled out words that almost arranged themselves into sentences. His fear did not translate into understanding particularly well, and the dark expression on his interrogator`s face grew ever blacker by the syllable. The overseer forced himself to stop and take a breath.
When he resumed his explanation, it became clearer to him how easily he had been deceived. The adventurers had played on his expectations and fears perfectly, their true purpose at Carn Marrot unknown and all the more frightening for it. Overseer Gevan no longer believed that they intended anything good for his master, and trembled at the thought of what punishments might be in store for him. Even so, he had enough spine in him to remain focused now, and to describe the quartet that had humiliated him.
"There were four of them. A drow of Orland was one, a vicious killer who strangled Reinhardt like he was no more than a puppy, just because my man mispronounced his Mordularian. I had every arrow and bolt in the camp aimed at him and he did not care, except to avenge the insult. There was also a Zelish halfling, more than just a gutter runner. An assassin, she must have been, trained by the best."
"Those two were just guards though. The boss of the group was some kind of dark dwarf, a pale and hairless freak from the deepest unlit regions. I think he must have been a derro, because duergar are still as hairy as common dwarves. He was riding on a palanquin of sorts. It was strapped to the back of a huge, bronze-skinned, female humanoid. She had a sword nearly my size tied-"
He was suddenly interrupted with a curt: "Stop. Repeat that last description."
Gevan swallowed hard and complied, "A huge, bronze-skinned, female humanoid."
Silence reigned for a few moments. It was broken by a wrathful syllable, spoken in the primeval language of fiends that hurt Gevan`s soul more than his ears, a curse older than life itself and as inimical to it as the unbound energies of the outermost planes.
"Empty the garrison," the fiend instructed him, already rising into the air. "Move to the keep at once. If the town rebels, it can be pacified later."
Gevan bowed even lower than before, a feat impressive in itself, and did not rise until the sound of frantic wingbeats had faded away. He had no wish to meet again whatever monsters had so upset his lord`s guest. He also knew that he had no choice in the matter. Gevan`s only hope at redeeming himself for his failure in allowing them to breach his lord`s defenses was to bring down the wrath of the loyal troops on them.
I must be mistaken, Marchosias thought to himself, winging his way back to Carn Marrot as fast as he could. They would not dare to show their face here. Jaef is far too powerful a foe for them - even in life, he was beyond them! No, I must be mistaken. It must simply be another quartet of adventurers out of the east that almost exactly match their description!
The imp knew better than to believe his own desperate lies. There was no real doubt, for had those four not been the reason for his latest contract? Orders from a devil vastly higher up in Hell`s hierarchy had been passed down to him, to act as a check against some unacceptable irritant in the mortal realm. The assignment had started well, and since then had been nothing but trouble.
Marchosias had been assigned to corrupt a warlock coven, and had succeeded admirably with his ostensible new master Naxartes. Then the coven had needed to call in outside help to deal with a growing local problem and those insufferable four adventurers had shown up. Only Naxartes had survived the assault they had unleashed on the coven afterwards. Then the efforts to rebuild from the criminal class of Elder Daven had been stymied by them, and an exasperated Naxartes had demanded they relocate elsewhere.
Now the same four had appeared in Kelerak, bringing an end to more of their allies. Niklaus the Demoniac had been an old correspondent, and Marchosias had been sent to him with an eye to formalising an alliance. They had killed Niklaus so completely that only the gods could intervene to bring him back. And now here they were, in Dessingrove, moving in on the lich himself, under whom Marchosias had first served as a familiar when Jaef was still alive, and for whom he had vouched when the wizard sought sponsorship to ascend into lichdom - before, for whatever reason, the change of name to Afej.
This was no coincidence. It could not be coincidence. Whatever fleeting doubts the imp had had of those adventurers being the irritant he had been sent to keep in check - and there had not been too many of those of late - were now decidedly gone from his thoughts.
Carn Marrot loomed large out of the night before him, and Marchosias noted that despite the main gates still being sealed, there was an absence of life and activity that suggested the chaos that had engulfed the garrison had managed to make its way up here as well. There was no time to waste.
He flew up and over the walls, looking down into the courtyard around which the keep was built. The dead and dying were piled high, some being feasted on by the surviving ghouls and zombies that Afej conducted his research upon, and he knew that the same scene was being played out elsewhere in the keep. None of that mattered, however, only that Afej was informed at once of the intruders, and Marchosias darted through one of the few unblocked windows of a rear tower, hurtling up the stairs into the portal chamber.
In mid-air, like he had hit an invisible wall, he stopped and stared its new occupants. Three of them he recognized at once, and only the half-elf gave him momentary pause, for that one was magically disguised as a drow by a truly ridiculous hat. He stared at the four, and they stared back with equal recognition, all shocked to stillness by each other`s presence here. For a few moments, the imminent violence seemed almost too much effort for any to break from this startled paralysis.
Then the solid oaken door in the eastern wall swung open, granting a brief glimpse of the arcane laboratory beyond, and the tortured shamblers within that were the current subjects of unspeakable experimentation. Before the door closed again, one of the darker shadows in that dreadful place emerged into the larger chamber.
It floated just off the floor, clad in ethereal robes stitched together of silently screaming souls, about its neck hanging a vaguely more solid talisman of writhing sinews pulling at the desiccated heart to which they were attached. An iron crown of web-like spires rose above a putrid yellowed skull, cruel eyes like embers glowing in their deep sockets. A heavy miasma hung about the imposing skeletal figure, viscous, corrupting; in its wake staining the flagstones the sickly pale green of diseased corpses, stone cracking and then melting back together as the undead horror passed.
In its fleshless hands lay an open grimoire, its twisted runic script detailing rituals and ceremonies that even the foulest of beings would blanch to perform. Since its creation, generations of suffering had been wrought across the planes, dealt out with equal fervor to the good and evil alike. And, without looking up from this dread tome, speaking in the grim sepulchral tones of the long-dead, Afej the Black made himself known:
"Ah Marchosias, excellent timing! As you can see, I have some new guests and we would be most interested in hearing your input on this treatise."
To the imp`s shock, the four adventurers that were proving to be the bane of his current incarnation seemed more surprised by his own appearance than by Afej`s. Indeed, the dwarf was calmly walking over to the lich, a professional curiosity in his eyes and what seemed to be a notebook in his hands. The unnatural wizardly duo exchanged their writings as though this was a common occurrence, and began to examine what they had received from the other, almost completely ignoring the imp trying to alert Afej to the threat.
"Friend of yours, Lord of Bones?" the dwarf asked casually, and Marchosias was even more bewildered by Afej`s unconcerned nod than by the calm arrogance of the question. "I must confess to no small surprise that so petty a fiend would be so closely aligned with yourself. Evidently your farsightedness has revealed some hidden value of beings so very...limited. The ninth chapter, did you say? Oh yes, I see. Self-generating plagues, very interesting."
As his confused protests continued to be ignored, a short bark of derisive laughter from the hositan reached his ears, and Marchosias shrieked indignantly, his deep pride common to all devil-kind grievously wounded. He did not know quite how these mortal annoyances had so easily deceived Afej into believing them benign and did not care to spend time to find out.
"Jaef, they are here to kill you!" he shouted, knowing the use of the lich`s original mortal name would be certain to get his attention, hurling himself at the dwarf.
"Come now Marchosias, you know I welcome all academic exch-" the lich began in a censorious tone, before noticing what the imp was doing. "Marchosias, you are being tiresome. Also ruder than a devil of your rank ought to be, you realize? Oh, NOW look what you`ve done!"
A knife, thankfully lacking in any magic, plunged itself into the imp`s back. The hositan that had thrown it was already moving closer, aware that an ordinary blade would barely inconvenience a fiend, even one so physically weak as an imp, but with no other options. Her elf-blooded ally, to Marchosias`s planar sight, was visibly wreathed in an aura of divine energies that marked him out as a highly experienced paladin - and he, knowing the greater danger was the lich, had his eyes fixed on Afej the Black.
In the uniquely disturbing manner of all the great undead, Afej somehow managed to look exasperated despite having a fleshless skull. He raised a hand, pointing at the advancing paladin, and uttered a terrible curse that leapt from his withered fingers in a wave of crushing blackness. Before it reached the paladin however, a counter-curse was shouted out, turning the wave on itself and hurling it back to its source.
The black wave enveloped the lich, struggling to press his unholy bones into dust and reduce him to a compacted mass of dry pulp. In a matter of seconds, however, the implosive curse swept down to the protective talisman Afej wore, and the desiccated heart beat one last time before being torn free of the binding sinews, crumpling into an anticlimactic grey puff that swiftly dissolved into ash and blew apart.
Knowing there could be no other responsible, Afej turned his terrible countenance towards the dwarf - sweat pouring from him after the effort of reversing a spell of such overwhelming power - both ignoring the desperate struggle of halfling and imp raging between them.
"The Inverted Disjunction," Afej stated, not questioned, and the dwarf nodded. "You really are one of that wretched woman`s more capable Loremasters. A pity that Marchosias is so impulsive. I was looking forward to taking your secrets for free. Already it has cost me one of my more prized talismans. It will take me a decade to refashion that to my satisfaction. After I remake my lost Grave-Chill, of course, one must have priorities. Speaking of which, the brutal and torturous massacre of your allies has just reached the top of my to-do list."
Absolute chaos reigned within the chamber, and Bukki shuddered at the thought of it. Nonetheless, the little kobold knew his duty and steeled himself to peer back around the door, darting back to avoid being decapitated as it was slammed shut again by a mostly-dismembered ghoul.
Struggling against the weight, he forced the door open again, took a second to stab his dagger into the eyes of the still-twitching undead (just in case!) and tried to work out what was happening. He could see easily enough that these were the four adventurers he had spied upon earlier in the day, but he felt sure that he would have remembered this being part of their plan.
He could see the furfoot female grappling with an imp, the devil compensating for its body`s lack of strength with fiendish resilience and a sharp-tipped tail that lashed at its foe`s eyes, forcing her to split her efforts. Just beyond, tearing into the rest of the twisted ghouls emerging from an even darker room than this, was the red-skinned giantess. She was using her bare hands, for her sword blade had been shattered and only the hilt was still lashed to her wrist. At her feet lay both the shards and the battered, empty remains of heavy knightly mail, no doubt having been brought been to life to end these intruders.
The Zelish half-elf was valiantly, but futilely struggling to close with HIM. Barely-real horrors whirled through the air between the two, the paladin fending off their agonizing assault with increasing difficulty as their icy touch slowed his muscles and peeled whole strips of flesh from his bones. These were mighty magics indeed, some brought forth by HIS will alone, others by long mastery of unspeakable tools and rituals. Witnessing this, Bukki knew that HE was truly invincible.
Yet there remained one that was unaccounted for. The little kobold crept further into the chamber, instinctively avoiding the black portal in the opposite wall, searching for the hairless midget - and there he was! Bound by sorcery, tethered to the flagstones with fiery chains that dealt pain without harm, fighting against the trap that had captured him. Something was strange about how he fought though. It looked like he was trying to reach something at his feet, rather than to break free.
Curiosity peaking, Bukki sneaked closer and saw that this was indeed the case. There was a book lying there, just out of his reach, radiating evil as palpably as the emanations of oblivion from that terrible portal. Bukki glanced up and his eyes met with those of the trapped creature. Desperation shone there, and wild hope, but very little fear.
Without knowing quite why he did it, Bukki darted forward and grabbed the evil book, hating the feel of it, but enduring for the sake of the tribe, and for the sake of the great debt it might never be able to repay. A coldness settled into the little kobold. For a moment, when he understood the source of the chill, his courage nearly failed him. But he withstood the soul-numbing terror and straightened his back, holding his head high to gaze into the eyes of the nightmare, of HE.
Afej the Black`s full attention was now on the little kobold that had dared to lay hands on his grimoire. He had nearly begun to exert himself in the destruction of the arrogant fools that had intruded here, but despite having an almost commendable resilience, they were on the predictable verge of annihilation. The lich held out his hand, silently demanding that his possession be returned to him.
The kobold was slightly too close to the portal for his liking, even though there was absolutely no danger at all from that quarter...
"Book - magic - focus - destroy!"
...as the imprisoned wizard battled through his pain to deliver his message, for there could be no other way to break the unimaginably powerful enchantments at the lich`s command...
"Please - help - cannot - alone!"
...and now the Zelish half-elf saw what Bukki held and cried out wordlessly, a plea for aid that Bukki understood perfectly...
"There - portal - throw - in!"
...and HE visibly came to the same realization, and a spell that could not be withstood by any who were present grew in HIS undead hands...
"Quick - now - must - else - lost!"
...and so Bukki knew then what he had to do, and how he could help to repay the unpayable debt of the tribe, and maybe even save the lives of those who were allied to its greatest hero, whose name he had overheard the half-elf speak as the one who had taught him the Dark Speech.
"Glory to Tamarrik," Bukki said simply, and clutched the book to his chest as he jumped into the portal.
The fifth irritant of the evening proved to be the final straw. Rebellion in the garrison, an adventurer incursion, Marchosias interrupting his scheme, losing that grimoire of quite irreplaceable value...all these paled to insignificance next to the pale figure that glowed greenly, barely able to stand yet somehow mustering the strength to do so, before his controlled portal to one of the Hells.
Afej the Black had come close to being weakened by this chain of events. Far too many of his most exciting projects, and more than a few of his favorite spells, had their roots in the knowledge imparted by the grimoire, the loss of which he estimated would set him back a century at least. Nonetheless, this was a lesson he intended to take to (his long-dusted) heart - he had been too reliant upon a single tool, too confident in using it to accelerate his triumph. And now look at what he had to deal with!
Ignoring the remaining mortals as the insignificances they were, Afej instead turned his malevolence upon the trembling man whose realm he had seized so long ago. Centuries of agony had left Harald Thodricsson a shell of his former self, but the deathless, true master of Dessingrove remained a force of nature.
Even here, at the unbirthed locus of a necrotic empire, he commanded the relentless power of the living world. His bonds broken now, weakened by the loss of the grimoire that had held the venomous secrets which had crippled him, the Eternal Baron felt the overwhelming urge to lie down and do nothing, so weary and in such pain was he. Instead, he reached out his hands, and fixed his blood-weeping eyes upon the lich, and invoked the vengeance of the Children of Bunga Proudfoot.
A thin tendril of life poked through the flagstones of the keep. As the true baron grasped it, the faltering vine grew thick and strong, the unmistakable leaves of mistletoe sprouting at its ends and hardening to cruel blades of adamantine strength. So armed, Harald lurched towards his hated foe, as gracelessly as a zombie, yet with a thousandfold more purpose.
In response, Afej the Black made a single curt gesture and spoke a single sharp syllable that seemed almost insulting for the spell produced. The air itself around the lich visibly grew heavy, perhaps even wholly solid, and then blew outwards in a devastating sphere of force. Everything bar the lich was hurled aside by hurricane winds and battered by hailstones the size of a human fist.
Thunder roared out from the unleashed storm so that only its fury could be heard, even through the very walls of Carn Marrot and down into the town of Dessingrove itself, where soldiers and citizens alike cowered in fear. The land itself quivered in memory of the ancient magic, not seen in the mortal world since the death of Keler himself. Only a wizard as powerful as Afej could even hope to cast such a spell, and even his vast will strained to keep it relatively contained. He knew better than to risk the Storm of Keler spiraling out of control and allowed the magic to begin fading away.
Afej scarcely noticed the adventurers collecting themselves after this onslaught, or Marchosias trying to extricate himself from a pile of hail, or even the alchemical flames bursting from his devastated laboratory at his back, where the largest of the insects that had presumed upon him screamed in joyous pain amid the inferno. None of that mattered, when compared to the insult of Baron Thodricsson daring to attempt revenge, and even now returning to his feet with enraging alacrity for one supposedly so drained of vitality.
I shall make my very existence into your chains this time, Afej promised his nemesis. I shall render your body an empty house of pain, and adorn my phylactery with your discorporated soul, so that you are bound for so long as I remain. Which shall be eternity.
The lich drew a blade out of thin air, crafted from raw magical force, and advanced wrathfully on the walking insult that sullied his - and it was his, he had earned it, through force and cunning and intellect and superiority - domain. Both of the undying claimants to the baronial seat of Dessingrove knew this would be a short conflict, with only one possible outcome. But of the two of them, it would be Harald, even with his mind again crumbling into tortured madness, that saw what might come of this in long years yet undreamed-of.
And even as his valiant, doomed efforts were brought low, he could see these forerunners of Afej`s inevitable destruction make their escape - then even the last of them, scorched and seared more horribly than any living thing should have to endure, the hilt of a broken sword partially melted into her wrist, stumbling haltingly from the inferno that she had remained in to ensure the destruction of all that the lich had been working on within.
Harald released his grip on the mistletoe glaive, breathing one more plea to the spirits which had allowed him use of such power. Its energies trembled in the instant before dissolution, before his final request was answered. As the weapon withered away, a small fragment of the magic that had grown it wrapped around the molten hilt of the adventurer`s destroyed sword. A poor substitute, perhaps, but one worthy enough for consideration.
It is an inarguable truth that, given enough time, even the quietest place will one day become a hub of frenzied activity. Now granted, few would make the claim that this region of Kelerak, just beyond Dessingrove on the scarce-trod road to Fort Sont in Kale, was the sort of place where 'nothing ever happened'. It had seen its fair share, and on this morning shall one more drama play out upon its stage.
First to appear, a stumbling quartet of heroes - or at least, the closest thing to such in these dark times - who have clearly been bested by a foe too great for them. One, an old man whose limbs tremble with remembered pain, must be carried by his leader, but Brokk is light and Aidan is not so wounded himself that he struggles to lift his friend. A second, hunched and lurching, is smaller than she ought to be, for Embla stayed in the fires long after she ought to have left. By her side, Isolde supports her as best she is able, knowing full well that she cannot hope to hold up her immense friend, and that the sole weak potion of healing she had had in her possession had barely done anything to the burns.
"I will live," Embla had sworn anyway, and this must be enough for them.
Now come the pursuers, the gibbering hordes led by a cruel master seeking to absolve himself of his mistake, the mistake that allowed his prey to come within swords reach of his almighty overlord. That no harm could have come from this is an irrelevance, for it is the insult that must be repaid, not any threat, and Overseer Gevan counted himself lucky indeed to have been given this chance at redemption.
"Bring them back or do not return," the lich had commanded him, and he would obey.
Dawn approaches. It is not enough to hide the campfire just beyond the crossroads. The tall and straight-backed figure seated there is familiar to the heroes. His robes were patterned strangely, a whorled staff by his side, and a wild mop of greying hair bursting free of his hood. As they draw closer, the proof of his identity is revealed with the expression of demented joy on his face, and his eyes that have been sewn shut for many a decade. It has been months since last they met, but none who knew him could possibly forget him.
Between gales of laughter, the blind oracle Tarsus applauds the wearied four that approach him, and though he says not a word, indicates the road they should now take: the most open, easterly one, without any cover. They do not argue, or pause to speak otherwise. There is nothing they can say that he does not already know, and they are grateful that he has placed himself here to help them one more time.
Not two minutes behind them now, the hunting party of Afej the Black appears at the campsite. Gevan is inclined to take his time with the old man seated there, infuriated by his crazed laughter, but being both blind and mad means that this would be nothing but wasted time. When the old man pauses in his cackling long enough to point down the easterly road, saying that their enemies had travelled that path, Gevan scoffs at the emptiness he sees upon it and turns his men around towards the north, leading into the forest.
Just after the last of the hunters vanishes between the trees, any who stood by the camp would have clearly seen four exhausted adventurers making their way up a hill, emerging at that precise moment from the hollow in which they had been hidden, unaware of the closeness of their pursuers. Some miles to go and the border with Kale would be first under their feet, then behind them, and a relative safety would descend upon them.
Yet this is not the end. For though it may take centuries or longer to come, justice is inevitable, and be it in this life or the next, will find its prey. A greater shadow looms up from its lesser brethren amid the confusion of early dawn in a thick forest. It seizes the rearmost of Gevan`s troops, silently, undetected. Then it does so again and again, until one nervous soldier happens to look around for reassurance. This one has time enough to scream at his death, and then they all scatter, Gevan himself showing some semblance of wisdom by fleeing back the way he came, hoping to reach the safety of the crazed old man and his fire.
Now hunters become the hunted, by she who was here long before any of them, before even their supreme lord took up residence in Carn Marrot, when she was one part of three. Now she was more even than this, one part of seven, for life grew in her belly, and soon she would have the scent of a mother. Her bond-mate was digging out their den now, but she did not mind his absence. She can destroy these intruders all by herself. Two-feet meat is not the best, but there is so much of it here that it does not matter.
She is fleet of paw, strong of jaw, and unlike any other dire wolf that ever roamed this part of the world. Half-memories of a two-feet dream, of strange thoughts no wolf has ever had, linger in her head. She sees the dead and knows that one is missing. She pursues and catches him in open ground. It is not a swift end, for this two-feet is in a harder shell than the others, and she must tear some of his meat loose first to get to his vitals. As she eats him alive, she keeps a wary ear watching the burning branches and the ancient two-feet next to it.
She knows him, in a way. Even masked by smoke-scent, his smell is that of the wilderness, not of two-feet. It is confusing, but she understands that he is part of her world. Not part of the pack, for he is not wolf, but close enough so that he is not prey either. She followed his strange scent many moons past. He led her to this food-rich place, to her bond-mate, to the cubs in her belly. She knows that because of him, she is where she is now.
Now, changed, greater than before, she is certainly intelligent enough to know gratitude.