The Mists of Daven
By R. Krommydas
"I think you're over-exaggerating the negatives, just a little. This is far from the worst place we've ever had to stay. The rabbit stew here actually has meat in it, for one thing, not just fur or gristle."
Isolde briefly lifted her head from the table, glaring at the man opposite her. The reasonableness of his words only irritated her more, and when he failed to look in any way chastened, she returned to cradling her head in her arms. Davenian ales disagreed with her, but nowhere nearly as much as the water had, even causing Aidan significant discomfort. She felt it necessary to remind the paladin of this.
He grimaced, a hand going to his stomach at the memory. "At least we were alive to suffer through that little nightmare. I'd have preferred not to learn the hard way that divine protection against disease doesn't stop a body from purging polluted water any way it can."
The pair looked up at the ceiling as a wordless scream of disgust and rage sounded from the upper floor. Aidan shook his head and glanced at the empty space next to him. "To think Embla got hit the hardest. With her constitution, you'd have thought she'd brush off a little poisoning like it was nothing."
"She did drink more than the rest of us combined though," Isolde countered. "And it wasn't as though she was in perfect health at the time. She did have to drag us across the Dead Hills after you finally collapsed in Zeel."
Aidan scowled and rubbed the fresh scar by his eye. A fraction more to the left and the great orc's blade would have cut through to his brain. The foul mixture applied to the weapon had worsened the bleeding anyway, nearly costing him his life. Somehow, he had managed to stay conscious long enough to slay the beast and staunch the flow, but the struggle had been enough to drain the last of his energy. He had drifted between the realms of waking and sleep for over a week afterwards.
That had been a desperate fight indeed. After emerging from the nameless caverns beneath the Ruin Woods, most of the group had suffered through a variety of maladies that neither Brokk's magic could halt, nor Aidan's own gift of healing cure. Isolde's relatively delicate halfling physiology had succumbed soonest, then Brokk became too ill to work his spells, and finally even mighty Embla showed signs of illness.
She and Aidan had carried the other two all the way to the township of Zeel City in the hope of finding aid at one of the local temples, only to find that an orcish war band had come up with the same thought. With their group severely weakened already, they were forced into a fighting retreat into one of the cloisters. It had only been the arrival of Zeel's militia forces that kept them from being overrun, although too late to keep the orcs from killing most of the defiant priests out of sheer spite. The few survivors had been too inexperienced, or wounded themselves, to be of any help.
Aidan admitted that it went a long way towards justifying Isolde's current mood. It also didn't help matters that they had been promised a reward for destroying the source of the plagues that were emerging from the Ruin Woods. But, with everyone who might have been able to pay them dead, even that was denied them. Isolde had made it abundantly clear that she was taking this as a personal insult, more grievous than any mere injury-- and from a practical perspective, it made paying for the little luxuries, such as food, substantially harder than it ought to be. Even here, in Elder Daven, in the cheapest place they could find, expenses tended to accrue rapidly.
The half-elf winced as Embla let out another scream, this one tailing off into a series of bubbling coughs. He tried not to imagine the scene, but having been there himself, failed miserably. He wondered briefly if Brokk was feeling up to getting out of his bed today, but then dismissed the thought. The dwarf was hardy enough, but the last few months had exhausted him as much as the rest of them. Whatever peace and quiet he could get would only be good for him. Gods knew they all deserved a bit of rest.
Little Wulfram licked his lips nervously. He was not yet used to being a 'face', but since that stupid bully Akkanta had been caught mouthing off, it was up to him to receive the New Master's words and pass them on. The messenger was scary in its own way. That it was such a small shape was clearly a way to impress the lads of how tough the New Master was. Anyone could be big and loud and scary, like Akkanta or any other half-orc, but the New Master's messenger just looked like a crow. But Little Wulfram thought the calm certainty in its voice was so much more scary than anything he had ever heard shouted. That the New Master could make a crow talk was itself a very scary thing.
He knew why he had been chosen as the new 'face'. It was because he was little. The others didn't hate him, exactly, but he was easy to push around. And after what had happened to the Old Master, and to Akkanta when he started talking big, nobody else wanted to be in line to get hit by that magic stuff. Wasn't his fault he was the littlest in the group. He felt he did all right out of it, for being the only gnome among humans and elves and orcs. But it was still scary.
The crow stood on its perch, looking down at him silently from the gable, almost invisible in the fading light. Little Wulfram swallowed hard. He never liked this part of town anyways, least of all when it started to get dark. He'd heard stories about things that happened here after dark, or things that came out after dark. The other lads had always laughed at the stories, patting each other on the back and saying how they wasn't scared of nothing. They always laughed very loudly, Little Wulfram had noticed, especially after a new story went around of someone who'd gone missing, or turned up all mangled and in pieces.
There was a faint shuffling sound from nearby and the crow cocked its head, screeching something into the dark. The shuffling stopped and Little Wulfram shivered. It was an evil noise, like the laughs he'd heard sometimes when someone was roughing up their doxy. The crow fixed a beady eye on him and he forced himself to stay still. He knew that a 'face' was supposed to try to look tough, but he didn't think he'd be able to do that as well as he ought. Then its beak dropped open and his fears were replaced by wonder.
"You are a brave mortal," it cawed at him, the words humming with sorcerous power. "Greater than the craven filth that sent you here, alone, to hear my words. For you know you are weak, but you stand strong regardless. Our master, true, will not appreciate this so much as I, but he has such grander concerns than either of us. I foresee a use for you beyond mere expendability."
"Hearken to my words, mortal. When the day is as night, when the air chokes as water, come to me here. Terrors shall be all around, but you shall not fall to them. Instead, you shall rise above those who mocked and derided you. But only if you remain strong! Else the torment that awaits you is beyond your comprehension."
The shuffling sound resumed, louder, closer, and accompanied by a moaning. The crow kept its gaze locked onto Little Wulfram. He dared not look away, even when he sensed the presence approaching hungrily. Grave-stench filled the air and he coughed, but still could not move. A shadow fell over him and only then did the crow shriek at whatever horror stood behind him, halting it in its tracks. All stayed motionless and silent as the dusk deepened still further.
"There is no message I am to impart today," the crow said at last. "Go back to the others. Know in your secret heart the day is coming soon for you."
The crow vanished entirely and Little Wulfram fell forward, suddenly released from the paralysis that gripped him. He regained his footing and fled, not looking behind him. After a few seconds, he heard a disappointed, angry wail from the street he had just left. He knew there would be another new scary story tomorrow. He was happy that he wasn't going to be a part of it.
Not for the first time, Brokk wondered if the ringing between his ears genuinely was a miniature army being outfitted by the forgemasters. As he pulled himself further out of sleep, these thoughts coalesced into more reasonable explanations. The screams of tortured steel were obviously the rusting hinges on his window. The rumbling undertones of molten rock being filtered for slag were nothing more than his own watery breaths. The roaring of the eastern wind-tunnels to the furnaces were still roars, but from the adjacent room.
Coughing up the last of the night's sputum, the dwarf looked guiltily and belatedly down at the street below, but was relieved to see that this time he had missed the passers-by. On his left, another window was slammed open and a vast, pale shape came into view. Normally the colour of burnished bronze and taut as a strung bow, Embla Aslaug's skin was now pasty and trembling, her eyes wide and staring, and unidentifiable lumps of matter were caught in the ends of her thick locks.
Brokk waited until she finished gulping down air like a man nearly drowned, then, with as much cheer as he could muster, called over, "You look like a risen plague corpse and probably smell thrice as bad."
Embla tried to scowl back, but was interrupted by another bout of dry retching. "Only fools or the dying can deny truth. I look magnificent - and am no fool. So I must be dying. You are fortunate, dwarf, to witness a death of Aslaug. Take word back. Let them know it was a good death. Many little children saved from evil hell-beasts! Foes with no number like the stars dead, blood spilled to fill the oceans!"
Brokk laughed despite himself. That Embla could joke at all, never mind at her own expense, was a good sign. Two days earlier, the fever had made her as hot to the touch as a firebrand, and robbed her of all language save her own. When her delirium threatened to turn her sword against others, Brokk had been forced to call upon his deepest magical reserves and bind Embla to stillness until the fever broke. The effort had very nearly been the end of him, though he had made sure to downplay the risks at the time.
At least the worst was behind them all now. Aidan and Isolde had pulled through remarkably quickly, and now that Embla was clearly on the mend, it was only a matter of time before they were back to their usual selves again. Brokk was worried though. For all the speed of their recovery, it seemed increasingly likely that they would still be in Elder Daven when the tipping point came. Since their arrival, he had felt the surges of magical power wash over the ancient city like tides, drawn to some unknown location within.
Brokk rarely considered himself cowardly, a side-effect of his chosen career. He always advocated caution over recklessness, patience over haste, but his gut told him that this was not any threat they wanted to face, prepared or otherwise. These last few days had only worsened the feeling that there was something indefinably wrong about magic in Elder Daven. It was almost as if it was being siphoned off, slowly at first, to serve some other purpose.
The wizard looked back at Embla, still hanging half out of the window, and wondered if any of his companions felt inklings of what he did. Aidan certainly, it was one of the many curses under which experienced paladins had to live, for there was at least some divine magic within them. Isolde having any sense of this was very unlikely, but he had no reference points to draw upon for Embla. The very existence of her people had been a complete unknown to him, a loremaster of the first order for Khuldul's sake, and conversation with her had made it clear she was atypical even of them.
As he thought of this, there was a sudden gust of wind. Except it wasn't wind, not in the truest sense. Brokk felt his mind rocked, almost hiding the sense of loss that replaced one of his spells. Vertigo took hold and he swayed. The buffeting inside his head grew stronger and he fought to retain control of himself, recalling every exercise and mnemonic to strengthen his will.
For a few seconds, his command of magic wavered. His lips quivered with the urge to incant, to call upon more of his energies so that they might be drawn from him. In desperation, he allowed a single strand to unravel from the skein, tracing a path towards the source of the attack. It dipped below the earth and was immediately cut off. Brokk let out a cry and fell back, landing heavily on the floor. He lay there, stunned, for all of ten seconds before the door to his room was thrown open and Embla stood over him protectively.
Aidan scratched his head, clearly out of his depth. "Brokk my friend," he said at last. "All I am getting from this is that you cannot cast a spell you thought you could."
Brokk nodded, as inspiration struck him. "That is exactly right. That should have been impossible. It would be like...like if you forgot a particular battle-stance. Or if Isolde looked at a gold statuette and didn't wonder as to its value."
The others drew in breaths sharply, suddenly understanding. Isolde opened her mouth, trying to think of a particularly cutting rejoinder, then abandoned the effort. The situation was far too serious. They were still not fully recovered and now that this was out in the open, there was no likelihood of slipping away from the city and pretending ignorance. Not that, she admitted to herself, there was any chance of either Aidan or Embla pretending ignorance when it came to something like this, and even she was intensely curious about the whole thing.
"I can ask around places," she offered, trying to recall anything useful about the Davenian underworld. "Unless they were wiped out in the last few years, there's a couple of groups might have an idea or two about what's going on. Um, Aidan? I'm going out on a limb here, all right? Will you come along with me, but just not say anything and look intimidating? And preferably only break people's heads when I ask you to?"
The half-elf made a face. "Because Embla is ill, is that it? You need me to look like your muscle around the thugs. Just stand around and throw a few glares and grunts at lowlifes."
"You got it. Whoever said paladins are unimaginative, self-righteous, holier-than-thou dullards, well! They clearly never met you." There was no hint of sarcasm or irony in Isolde's voice and that only made Aidan scowl the harder.
"Fine, for you, I'll do it," he muttered, already regretting it. "But if we see one necromancer or walking corpse, I swear by Kantor and by Neltak, I will not wait for your blessing to send them to Hell!"
Isolde looked affronted. "That's a dirty stereotype, Aidan, and I'm shocked you would have such an opinion. Just because this is Daven, any criminal must be in the thrall of the undead! And of course, I, a lowly halfling, would know of nobody other than criminals - oh, that makes two stereotypes, then, how very enlightened of you!"
Brokk and Embla glanced at each other, each wondering if it was worth interrupting this argument. After a few moments, Embla motioned against it, having learned earlier that shaking her head would bring on a bout of coughing. Brokk acquiesced, recalling that it had been less than an hour ago that he thought it reassuring they were all getting back to their old selves. It would probably do the other two a world of good to vent their respective philosophies for a while. It had always seemed to work before. They quickly changed their minds.
"Well, crooked and deceitful as I am, maybe next time you're strapped to an altar I'll let the bastard kill you!" Isolde snapped. "After all, it's not like a thieving little wretch like me is going to want to save a paladin! Right?"
Aidan blanched at the memory. "It was all perfectly under control. Not my control, I grant you, but Brokk was about to incinerate the man anyway. And I stopped myself from binding and gagging you after that, didn't I? It is what you still deserve."
A high-pitched whistling escaped Isolde's throat in her outrage. Immediately, Brokk stood up, clapping his hands sharply.
"Mavarra is past," the wizard growled. "And it should stay there. All of it. No, Aidan, all of it. I am more serious than you can know! We shall all have nightmares enough without bringing back more of that time. We either stop now or we finish ourselves off."
Silence fell and for a few seconds, none could meet each other's eyes. At last, Aidan held out a hand, wiping his eyes with the other. Isolde swallowed hard, mouth dry, and took his peace offering. Brokk sat back down, shaking slightly, and drew comfort from Embla's firm grip on his shoulder. He wondered how long they could keep running. He feared it would be a long time. He was more terrified that it wouldn't be.
Keeping your eyes open and ears shut was a difficult, but vital part of surviving the gauntlet that was Swallowsnest House. With polite nods, Little Wulfram acknowledged each of the towering figures blocking the curtained chambers, whilst pretending not to hear the sounds from within, particularly the ones that suggested the guest was being treated, or acting, as less than a man should. That the House specialty was in catering to those tastes, and others of far greater deviancy, was similarly unremarked upon.
Moving deeper into the property, the gnome glanced up from time to time, always whispering a little prayer to the Wild Sage Dekk to protect the swallows that had nested in the building's rafters since before the occupation. He knew it wasn't particularly gnomish of him to feel so affectionate towards birds, but there was something impossibly beautiful about them. His heart would catch in his throat to hear them sing, and more than once had he crept away from the eyes of others to cry over their dances at sunset.
Little Wulfram paused to collect himself at the final corner. He thought about everything the messenger of the New Master had told him. It wouldn't do to let on that he'd been singled out for a good reason. The rest of the lads would be jealous at best, dangerous at worst. Sure, they wouldn't try anything openly, but how often had he seen a knife go astray in a fight, all accidental-like?
He took a deep breath, hunched his shoulders, and peeked around the corner, as though nervous of what he might see there. The action itself was his normal way of showing back up at their rooms, but it felt so wrong to him now. No longer in the shadow of whatever horror had hoped to hunt him, Little Wulfram felt confident, brave even. Already, pretending to be the group's fearful stunted pushover again grated on his nerves. He knew the act would be necessary for a while yet. He tried to think of it like just another part of moving through the House, putting on a show that things weren't what they were.
"Er, ‘scuse me boys," he stuttered haltingly to the unsettling trio of guards around the corner. "It's, um, me? I mean, it is me, uh, you can see that. Not saying you can't, obviously. Um, I'm back. Ain't no word today. Very quiet out there."
For a second, Little Wulfram felt his composure slip, and the act he was putting on was real again. Danith, Marrol, and Ragar were very good at their jobs, which were always nasty and painful when they got going. They had come to Daven from the eastern reaches of Farland itself, and had soon found their niche as the cruelest heavies of the gang. Even the half-orcs respected them for the sheer number of things they thought up to punish people who crossed them.
Just seeing them gave Little Wulfram the chills. Creepy twins, he said to himself, he could deal with, but creepy triplets were a whole other thing. He didn't even know which was which, they always finished each other's sentences, didn't even need to look to avoid bumping into each other, did everything together, and were just plain weird. Like how after one nasty fight, Marrol had lost most of his right ear, so the other two cut theirs to match. Or how they often walked out at night, showing up the next day in dirty clothes and strange smells, smiling and laughing.
He forced a hopeful grin and added, "Maybe, um, you could tell the others if they ask? Cos it's been a long day and, ah, well, I, uh, need some sleep."
The three blinked at him, all at once, sending a shiver down his spine. One of them sighed deeply, shaking his head as though in disappointment. When he stopped, another waved a dismissive agreement, then the third stood aside from the doors just enough to let the gnome creep inside and get to his own bed. There was a mocking smirk on each Farlandish face as Little Wulfram plucked up his courage and scurried down the hall past them.
The first Little Wulfram knew of his services being needed again was, as usual, delivered with a rude awakening as he was simply rolled out of his bed only a few hours after crawling into it. He sat up sleepily, thankful for the House being wealthy enough to afford carpets, and mumbled a question to the man standing over him.
"We got a meet happening," came the answer. "Whole bunch of 'faces' have been reporting back to the bosses for the last hour, hour-half. Not looking too happy, neither. Seems like some easterner's come a-visiting. Zelish, or I'm a troll. Must be big to send one of theirs all the way down here. We'll need all you can get from them to keep the Master happy. Be at Ruby's for the third bell."
Little Wulfram scowled, but knew better than to argue. Instead, he splashed cold water on his face, pulled on some of his more decent clothes, and trudged through the House to the assigned room. Its usual occupant was sitting just outside the curtained entryway, a pipe stuffed with dregs of Southern Star leaf gripped between stained teeth, satisfaction glittering in dark eyes. Ruby Firestouch, real name unknown, was easily the oldest and most infamous resident of Swallowsnest House, a former dancer in the courts of Belendale who had actually lived through the occupation of Elder Daven.
"How long did they pay for?" Little Wulfram asked her, standing just outside the cloud of smoke wreathing the elderly elf.
She grinned back, saying nothing, but letting him see the golden shine capping one of her back teeth. It was answer enough, and it told Little Wulfram several things. Paying in gold meant a kind of insanity, for no moneylender in the city could give change for it. Gold was reserved for treasure vaults and dragon hoards, not bribing a harlot to give up her room. It was the clearest kind of message, that these people had confidence enough to walk into this nest of thieves and murderers, announce great wealth and power, then walk back out again.
Small wonder the other 'faces' were not happy about how their meets had gone. None of the bosses would want to make a move, just in case it wasn't a bluff, and especially if these foreigners really were Zelish. There were many horror stories about what went on in Zeland these days, some of which even those Farlandish brutes claimed were probably true. It was enough to make even the most brazen of bosses wary.
Little Wulfram took a breath, then hurried past Ruby, trying to ignore the great plume of smoke she puffed into his eyes, knowing how much he loathed it. Petulantly, he wished the House was less known for its old-fashioned, elegant drapes and curtains, and more for solid oaken doors he could slam behind him and shut out her cackles. But then he was inside and it really didn't matter anymore. At a glance, he saw that the worst possible scenario lay before him. He had spent too long under the heel of those bigger and meaner than him to be confused by appearances.
Leaning up against the far wall was a half-elven warrior, steel in his eyes and a scar along his face that spoke of desperate and bloody battles. The redness of his hair alone would have given him away as a Zelish native, but the style of his clothes was an equally clear giveaway. Sitting in front of him, calmly examining some of the explicit visual aids decorating the chamber, was a similarly tough-looking halfling woman. Her gaze fell on Little Wulfram and he noted there was no sign of the instinctive dislike for gnomes that the hositan usually displayed.
She had the look of a gutter-runner, who had needed to fight every day of her life just to stay alive, but there was a measure of self-control that Little Wulfram dreaded to see. Together with the other hints - the payment in gold, the hard look of the warrior, even the faint callouses on her fingertips - it all combined into one overwhelming likelihood. The pair very nearly had an aura of power about them, not unlike that of the Old Master.
"Isolde of the Ballusias," the halfling introduced herself bluntly. "Sit, please. I hope you are more helpful than the rest. Aidan here is becoming...tetchy."
Little Wulfram spared the half-elf a second look, and concurred. He knew that if he didn't play this game perfectly, or gave away that he knew the game was even being played, he would almost certainly end up dead. These were no mere 'face' and muscle from over the border. These were adventurers. There could be nothing more dangerous, more unstable, than that.
Isolde leaned back in the chair, fighting the urge to rub her temples. The gnome was a perceptive one, she could tell. He said all the right things at all the right times, but there was a barely perceptible tremor in his voice that told he had seen through their personas. Perhaps it was because he was one, maybe even the only one, of the small folk that had to make a living here. Half-orcs were abnormally numerous and even the elves they had seen lacked the delicate build characteristic of their race. She guessed he had needed to learn to see past appearances quickly in order to survive. Admirable, but it made her job that much harder.
"Magic is very interesting, don't you think?" Isolde asked the gnome rhetorically, noting the delay before he forced a confused expression. "Especially in places like this, the very heart of the old Davenian realms. So much history, just lurking below the surface. Makes you wonder why there aren't more stories about wizards and such coming here to dig up the past. All you really hear these days is dull, old, childish horror stories about the walking dead."
Instantly, the gnome snapped at her, "Would outsiders be happier hearing the new stories? Or would they go running back home? Maybe we ain't big and tough like Zelish nor Orlanders, but we still lives here when you leave. So what I'm wanting to know is, what is it you're looking for here? What do your bosses need of ours?"
Isolde smiled broadly, finally seeing her opportunity. Without exception, the others she had spoken to had been eager to agree with her assessment. They boasted and bragged, derided and denied the truth of Daven's lamentable infestation of the undead. This one, however, had gone the opposite route. Hostility was an extremely rare ploy that Isolde had been taught to avoid unless you were, or could bluff that you were, on vastly superior ground to the other negotiator. Given what she had heard from the others so far, she wasn't getting the impression of a bluff.
"Which of your bosses are you talking about exactly...Little Wulfram?" she asked, her smile all teeth as the gnome's eyes momentarily widened. "The old one, the shrouded Cadocian? Or the mysterious new one? I heard tell he spelled up something really nasty on one of your boys a few days back. A sort of something that is very interesting to wizards not of Daven. Ours wants to know details."
In the back of his mind, Little Wulfram invoked Vornoth to punish the loose tongues of the 'faces' that had preceded him, whilst in the front of his mind, he begged Dekk to grant him salvation. He felt so stupid. Of course, these adventurers would have heard of the fate of the Old Master and Akkanta. What mattered now was to persuade them that he mattered so very little to the New Master - even though the scary messenger had singled him out specifically - that they had no need to kill him.
"All I do is deliver messages," he said truthfully, thinking quickly. "Nobody cares if I gets eaten on the way somewhere. That happens sometimes. It's not old stories you always hear, but nobody wants to admit that some of them are new. I guess I can say so because nobody cares if I'm one of the new scary stories."
He noticed a softening on the face of the Zelish warrior, almost like pity. The halfling, on the other hand, now looked at him like halflings were supposed to look at gnomes. Little Wulfram began to see how he could escape this nightmare. It would be very risky, but there was a good chance he could get them killed trying to be heroic. A little bit more truth-telling and the lie would be perfect.
"The Old Master was getting soft. Not so soft that one of the boys would try for him, but the New Master ain't one of the boys. He just showed up one day and said he's running things from now on. His messenger did the saying, anyways, he just stood there and...well, the Old Master didn't have a whole lot left of himself after. He only comes out now to keep the boys in line. Otherwise, it's just me going out to hear any message he has for us."
The adventurers were clearly interested. The half-elf had a look in his eyes that was almost hungry. Little Wulfram had seen it before, whenever one of the more ambitious boys had heard of their boss' weakness. He felt relieved. Half of his work was done. He only needed to explain to the halfling why she mustn't kill him just yet. Time for the lie.
"The New Master said we can't just go anytime to hear what he has to say. We has to wait until the night is as day, when the air is so clear it can hurt to breathe. Oftentimes there ain't no message anyways, but I still needs to go out just in case."
He forced himself not to hold his breath. If nothing else did, that would undoubtedly give the game away. Little Wulfram saw the half-elf come to what he probably thought was understanding, though he'd obviously fallen into Little Wulfram's trap. The key part of this was tricking the hositan. She was completely silent as she thought over the options. At last, she stood up and beckoned the half-elf to follow.
"You will take us to the meeting place tonight," she said, with all the intensity of a judge passing sentence. "Do not argue. Be outside at dusk, or Aidan will drag you out. I'm sure you appreciate that nobody will try to stop him."
That, Little Wulfram bitterly accepted, was an inarguable truth.
"It doesn't have to be," insisted Aidan stubbornly, though he felt defeated already.
Isolde sighed deeply, listing off the reasons one more time. "He didn't argue about the undead, he didn't pretend to be a valued part of his gang, he didn't deny the magical ability of his 'New Master', he offered the specific circumstances under which he had to go out. Conclusion? Trap."
Brokk and Embla murmured agreement. Since returning and bringing them up to speed on the day's investigations, Isolde had spent all her time devising stratagems and tactics, and plots and gambits, and counter-schemes and double-ambushes, none of which made any sense to anyone except her, but were of such confident intricacy that the others had resolved to trust her judgement. All of them hinged on her insistence that they were being led into a trap, which left a sour taste in Aidan's mouth.
"He was so very sincere about it all though," the paladin said unhappily. "If I had never before seen one struggling through life, bullied and treated as expendable by all, I would still have known that was the case for him. It is so - so..., it, hmm. It is just so difficult to see him as a villain leading us to our doom. It doesn't fit."
A bark of laughter from Isolde made it very clear what she thought of that. In her experience, it fit perfectly well, precisely because he was such a put-upon individual. He correctly saw them as a threat and hoped to get rid of them, either by luring them to their deaths and thus earning a bit of respect for his cunning, or by having them kill off those above him and giving him the opportunity to make something more of himself. Either way, so long as he stayed clear of the fighting, there was apparently little chance of this making things worse for him.
Embla looked at Aidan thoughtfully. "I am still not very sure of some different meanings, but the word you use most often is 'paladin', when you say just what you do. I have heard that a paladin can feel evil nearby, even when it hides in the soul. But you do not? Aidan?"
"That is almost true, but it is a little more involved than that," Aidan explained, somewhat reluctantly. "I cannot just look at someone and say 'Ah, there is an evil man!' Not unless he is a glamered fiend, or somesuch. At most, I could sense if he carried an item of great divine power, whether sacred or profane. Perhaps once paladins could identify morality at a glance, but that is no longer among our abilities. Thank Heshtail for that."
Frowning, Embla began to protest, but Aidan cut her off. "Evil has a taste. It is bile. With sharp legs that snip at your skin, making an opening just large enough to crawl inside. It tickles your stomach until you want to vomit, but you cannot, because that would bring the taste back. You feel it scurry around. A silent ringing in your ears. A blood-warm trickle from your nose, but it is dry when you try to wipe it. It sticks your tongue to your teeth so you cannot speak, excepting vileness and untruths. You curl up inside your head and scream at it to stop laughing at you, but it refuses to stop. Then the first heartbeat is over and the second begins."
Aidan fell silent, his eyes wide and staring. After a few moments, Embla reached over and gripped his shoulder, feeling cold sweat beneath her hand, looking shamefacedly at the others. They had all heard the stories, but had dismissed them as lies from the followers of proscribed faiths. This was the first time the underlying truth had been proven to them.
It was a grim irony that the final act of initiation into the Lord of Mercy's noblest circle of defenders was a cruel and scarring one, designed to fortify the resolve of the new paladins. Having been tutored in how to detect the lasting auras of hallowed ground and celestial beings, they were then exposed to the opposite sensations, courtesy of a Living Martyr. These were servants of Goodness, but risked their souls by summoning fiends and casting profane magics, enabling others to learn how best to defeat enemies who made use of such weapons.
"It can be no worse than what we have seen together," offered Brokk hesitantly, then with greater surety in his voice. "Tell us. It will help. We listen well."
Aidan looked at the dwarf hollowly, then took a deep breath and nodded.
Far below Zel City, at the subterranean confluence of the Colfin and Dimrune rivers, were forbidden temples carved into the ancient stonework by artisans in hiding. Here, amid the sewer-stench and oversized vermin that drifted through regularly, the faithful prepared for the day when the Dark Occupation would end, when evil would be driven from the land. The safeguards were numerous and devious enough to prevent all but a few from finding this place. Even fewer would ever leave.
Aidan had spent five years chasing the slightest tale of the temples, daily risking arrest and execution for heresy. When at last he found them, it had taken another two years to prove himself free of corruption, the clerics and inquisitors of that outlawed world ensuring he was not a spy. He did not begrudge this time spent, knowing it was vital for their continued existence. After his release, he threw himself into the training offered to become a paladin, to carry the fight back to the surface.
He had excelled in some exercises, performed adequately in others. In some cases he held himself back so as to help those who struggled, earning a fair bit of good-natured ridicule. Always he spoke of his determination to prove that the true faiths were not defeated, merely regathering their strength in preparation for a decisive counter-strike. To a few, he admitted he had fought so hard to be admitted here because his father had forbidden it. To none save the gods, who knew already, Aidan explained that this was because his brother had gone before him and failed.
At last, the day came when Aidan, among several other students, was to be accepted as a full paladin. As with the rest of them, the half-elf was terrified and not ashamed to show it. For him though, the fear had a far more personal twist to it. Initially, this last test had only scared him because of its importance and the unknown quality of what he would be made to feel. Then he had been told the name of the Living Martyr that would be assigned to his group and his strength had promptly abandoned him.
One by one, his fellows passed through the archway that led to their final test, doors slammed and barred behind them. None returned, for it was not the exit - just one more way to unsettle those still waiting their turn, forcing them to confront their doubts. Eventually it was only Aidan left and the cleric waiting for some unseen signal to send him through. The wait was interminable, though in truth it cannot have been more than five minutes. At last the cleric smiled, a little sadly it seemed, then stood aside. Aidan steeled himself and stepped inside the chamber.
He flinched as the way back was sealed. The smell of sulphur was nearly overwhelming. Several candles were set in the walls, providing just enough illumination to confuse his elven senses, which struggled to focus in the pitiful half-light, half-dark. A pair of huge centipedes scurried about, horribly audible but barely visible. Aidan was sure the giant vermin fully disappeared when he wasn't looking, apparently just to reappear alarmingly close by if he actually made an effort to find them in the gloom. Some distance away, a figure he knew all too well waited, features clear even in this light.
Aidan licked his lips nervously. "It is so good to see you again, Kirne."
"That will change," his brother said tonelessly, as the two quasits abandoned their centipede forms and lunged.
Aidan heard a scream. He judged it was his own, but it was difficult to tell for sure. A flapping, shrieking hell-creature was trying to scratch his eyes out. Another was biting at his ankles, lashing at the back of his knees with a pointed tail and doing a very good job of keeping him off-balance. He flailed wildly, trying to dislodge the pair so that he could fight back, but hit nothing except air.
Reeling, blinded, he felt panic wrap its cold fingers around his heart. The urge to curl up in a ball and scream until everything stopped was overpowering. How could he have been so foolish? What possible madness had taken hold of him to make him think he could do anything of value? He couldn't fight against the monstrous powers of the Dark Occupation - he was clearly losing against two very minor demons. There was no hope for him, for Zeland, for any of the enslaved lands, if this was the best he could do.
"You came here with the memory of Goodness and Purity." Aidan heard his brother's voice from across a gulf of terror and shame. "Feel now the power of Evil and Corruption. Know that you are defeated."
The words had the feel of ritual about them, breaking through Aidan's unreasoning panic. He remembered that he was being tested, specifically for his worthiness to face the greatest of horrors, enemies of all that was holy, that could slay him with a thought. Against such foes, victory might amount to no more than standing your ground and facing death with dignity. At that moment, Aidan understood that defeat was a fate you chose, not one that befell you.
He reached into himself, feeling for the spark of divinity that marked his allegiance to Heshtail. It was the merest flicker of light, but it was enough to pierce the darkness enveloping him. An understanding of the primal embodiments of good and evil burst into his mind, expanding outwards. His eyes were still closed, but Aidan could see the quasits attacking him, their demonic energies blazing like bonfires at night.
The sensation was ghastly. He could feel their hate for him, their innate desire to harm him, even the undertones of their delight at his distress. His skin crawled at their ageless malice. Ten thousand times they might be called to the mortal world and ten thousand times they might be cast back to Hell, but never would they cease wishing to inflict suffering. But brighter still, purer in every way, was the very air he breathed and the feel of the stones beneath his feet.
Slowly, Aidan reached out and grabbed the quasit scratching at his eyes. It struggled for a moment, then dissolved to nothing. The other minor demon scrabbled underfoot for a few seconds more before it too vanished. Aidan opened his eyes and closed his mind's eye to the cosmic window through which he had briefly peered. He felt strangely calm. There was no pain and, when he lifted his hands to his eyes, searching for the wounds he had suffered, he found none.
"This chamber is hallowed ground. Any fiend brought into it is rendered impotent. They cannot harm you, though they certainly terrify and disgust. If you remember your training, you can withstand that and imprint in your memory what they made you feel. Now, child of light, you are ready. Be ever merciful - paladin."
His brother's words sounded as though they came from a great distance. Aidan wondered if this was a side-effect of shock, though he wasn't quite sure what sort of shock. Certainly, there was the experience of being attacked by demons, albeit harmlessly. The spiritual feel of them was equally certain to rattle the sturdiest of nerves. He suspected, however, that the biggest shock was learning what had happened to Kirne. Now it was obvious what their father had meant by Kirne failing on his own quest.
Aidan was still thinking about this revelation as the adrenaline left his system and he fell into an exhausted sleep.
They must know something was up, Little Wulfram thought to himself, considering how readily they had agreed to his plan. He eyed the Farlandish triplets again suspiciously. Bringing them into play was less risky than dealing with those adventurers, but the payoff would be even greater if his plan worked. It made sense to take that little bit of extra risk.
"No questions before we start?" he asked them, trying to feign concern. "This is a big job, you know. We don't want to get the Master upset with us."
One of the brothers glared at him witheringly. "We are perfectly aware of our role in this, stunty. If we wanted -"
"- and we are very tempted to be wanting many things that you would dislike us wanting," continued another. "We might simply leave you here. Or perhaps even there, when we all arrive and everything becomes fun. Not that -"
"- for all the amusement we could get from that, it would really be worth the effort," the first of them finished. "After all, if we left you behind anywhere, we'd have to get someone else to run everywhere for us. What, Danith?"
Danith shook his head in mock despair, wagging a finger at his brothers in playful censure. They stared at him for a moment, and then all three burst out laughing in perfect synchronicity. Just as suddenly they stopped, took a recovering breath, and continued readying themselves for the evening.
Little Wulfram shuddered, goosebumps tickling his arms and nape. The few doubts he still had about this quickly dissolved. There was no chance the adventurers were strong enough to kill the New Master, even if Little Wulfram was such a sneak to get them to ambush him, but there was no sense making the New Master annoyed at the effort. Worst came to worst, the triplets would kill the adventurers and things would stay normal. Best came to best, the triplets all die softening up the adventurers and the New Master sees that Little Wulfram has enough smarts to take out many threats all at once.
All he had to do now was avoid trouble whilst everybody else had at each other. He was good at doing that, he knew. The rest of the boys all mocked him for being little and scared, but even the biggest and bravest of them got hurt. Little Wulfram smiled at the thought. Actually, the biggest and braver you were, the more you got hurt. He got kicked around by the boys, but he'd never broken a bone and still had all his teeth. So, who was the stupider, he asked himself, happy to know that the answer was not him.
"Ready, stunty. First, wipe that silly smile off your face. That's better. Now, you be a good boy and take us to our fun time. We're looking forward to showing these fakes what happens when you mess with the real deal. Hop to it, runt."
Little Wulfram kept his expression neutral. The insults didn't hurt anymore anyways. He just wanted to be sure he didn't give his game away to them. Not just yet.
Embla stepped back from the anvil and set the hammer down, breathing heavily. It had not been her best work, but until she was back to her old self, it would be her best effort. To judge by Aidan's face, it was also better than they had hoped. Like its owner, his warhammer had suffered considerable abuse beneath the Ruin Woods. Several of its banded grips had been jarred loose and the head itself lacked its former stability, but she had persevered and put to rights the worst of it.
The paladin adopted a combat stance, angling the great weapon parallel to his body. He twisted to the right, bringing it up to deflect an imaginary strike, pushing the danger away from himself and exposing his enemy's side. The opportunity was so obvious that to take it would be a fool's act, so Aidan side-stepped left quickly, repeating the block on his other side - for his adversary had used the inertia of being pushed away to spin on his heel, his shield interposing itself between apparent vulnerability and warhammer. Had Aidan pressed his supposed advantage, it would have left his head and torso open to a quicker, decisive attack.
Embla watched the imagined duel play out, appreciating the display of skill and restraint that Aidan showed. He looked so very fragile by comparison to the warriors of her people, but she had seen him in enough battles to know how tough he really was. It was easy to underestimate him as an opponent, not least because he hid his armor beneath his shirt and cloak, so he seemed unprotected. The mail was good chained steel too, elf-light and clearly heirloom of a family that knew its value in combat.
She and Isolde were very different. Herself because only a very few of the Risarvinnae bothered with the heavy armors so beloved of these northern peoples, not least due to the dangers it posed in their homes; Isolde because most of her skillset suffered when her mobility was constrained. But whereas Isolde had a talent for patching together all manner of scraps into serviceable armor, constantly modifying the peculiar assembly she wore, Embla scarcely even relied on thick cloth to keep from injury. Scars danced across her body, proud testament to countless battles and hunts, each with a history of their own that she could recite without hesitation.
It was strange, Embla thought, how four people of such widely differing backgrounds and ideologies had come together - and, far more bizarrely, stayed together despite all that divided them. The strengths they each brought to the group more than compensated for their individual weaknesses, which in turn helped to define the paths of self-improvement they chose, thus giving them even greater strength.
She was glad to have come this far north in her quest. It broke her heart to think that one day, she would have to make the decision to return south. For all that they survived together, Embla knew that her friends had not yet reached the heights that her kin would require to accept them in their territory. Not as they deserved to be accepted, in any case.
As Isolde sat quietly nearby, still plotting out all the possible scenarios for their excursion, Brokk sat in quiet meditation, fingers resting lightly on the ancient stone tablet before him. It was an unusual form of reflection for a wizard, but Brokk was not a usual wizard. Once he had carried the physical trappings of his trade as any might, in esoteric scribblings and elaborate schemas all but indecipherable save by the most learned. Then he had interrupted the Final Recitation, unwittingly binding himself to that ageless artifact and quite literally losing everything short of his life.
Attempts to recreate his spellbook, for lack of a better term, failed repeatedly. The notations were meaningless, even when their form had crystal clarity in his mind. Brokk had tried to examine scrolls and tomes containing magical knowledge, only to find even that avenue closed off to him. He had no difficulty in converting the cipher, but the fact that he was unable to make use of his own system stymied him completely. It had been several months later, during one of his many inspections of the tablet, that he suddenly understood the nature of one of the inscribed spells.
It was a minor ritual, designed to strip away the barriers of language for scant minutes, but to Brokk it may as well have been intended to call upon the might of Khuldul himself. He threw himself into further study, applying his crude understanding of the tablet to the magical notations he knew were correct, but from which he could draw no power. As the days and weeks passed by, Brokk became more adept at unlocking the meaning of the spells, slowly coming to the conclusion that he had somehow ended up substituting his own memory of magical texts and diagrams for the physical copy of them previously required.
He was effectively using the tablet as a mnemonic totem, letting him recall even the most complicated of incantations and rituals with perfect efficiency. It meant an end to his half-life, surviving off scraps earned from his few innate talents. It meant an end to scribing puerile messages for petty baronets, and translating vacuous phrases into ancient languages to be inked on prideful crests, and sorting archived letters and missives for corrupt courts, and tutoring etiquette and protocol to bastards - many of whom were, utterly so - of nobility.
Brokk wondered how long he would have had the strength to keep on like that, had he not had that revelation. He suspected he would have found far more strength than was reasonable. His life would not have been cut short so easily. In all likelihood, the misery of being a wizard without magic was exactly the sort of punishment he deserved for his arrogance. That it lasted so short a time was miraculous, he thought, and proof enough that the gods were possessed of mercy and cruelty in great measure.
He brought himself back to reality as the last spells flowed into his mind. There were fewer of them than there ought to be, his capacities savaged by whatever mysterious power was leeching the arcane from Elder Daven. He had tried to explain the concept before, but it seemed as though only those who wielded magic could truly understand some of what that entailed. For Brokk, however, it was enough that the severity of the situation was understood by his friends.
He would guide them as best he could. The rest would be up to steel and courage.
Breathing shallowly through the thin wrap about his mouth and nostrils, filtering the evening's thickening fog from his lungs, Little Wulfram ran over the plan one more time in his head, searching for the flaws that would end him. First, hope that those Farlandish brutes were not so eager they broke from hiding before the right moment. Second, ensure that right moment was when rogue and warrior were divided between street and underworld. Third, the New Master's messenger, who'd be watching invisibly from its perch, had to be assured this was to protect the New Master's interests.
Especially since they said they had a wizard of their own, the gnome reminded himself. Big unknown there. Is he a spellslinger? Hell-caller? Brain-binder? New Master could handle him, obviously, but oughtta not have to.
Four shapes grew in the gloom and Little Wulfram steeled himself as they became clear. The half-elf and hositan he knew at once for what they were, and guessed the robed dwarf was their wizard, but quailed to see their true muscle. Had he not known of the Farlandish trio's fondness for certain, hideous, nameless concoctions of poison, he'd have dismissed any chance of them triumphing over the towering monster before him.
"If you're all ready, we'll be heading off quick now," he said hurriedly, letting his nervousness come through. "There's no sense in us being interrupted by, well, them things you hear about in the stories. Definitely have some about tonight with this air. Right unhealthy it is."
The hositan smiled mirthlessly at him and Little Wulfram shivered, suddenly more afraid of her than any unseen shambler or even the cruel brothers of distant Farland. It was with genuine caution that he edged around the quartet of adventurers, fearing to turn his back to them before he had to. When at last he had no choice, he swallowed hard and began to lead them to his ambush.
"We go onto Mattock Lane first, then take the second left, right, into Gilbert's, the street I mean," Little Wulfram heard himself gabble the directions, hating himself for it. "From there we have to go round the One-Ear's patch, lest you has a liking for being hooked like fish. He don't like guests he ain't invited down to the docks himself. Then it's just-"
The half-elf warrior interrupted suddenly: "Ludwig One-Ear? The pirate lackey who pretends to be a guildsman. Infamous enough that even we foreigners have heard tell of him. Or are you talking about a different One-Ear who runs things by the sea?"
For a moment, Little Wulfram was tempted to try an earlier division, but then remembered the old adage - it is easier for a cripple to split a clam than for a man to split a party - and abandoned that line of thought. He looked back at the half-elf and, slowly, deliberately, shrugged. It was as clear an answer as any outright agreement and the hungry look briefly returned to the warrior's eyes, before being shelved as a future project.
Though Little Wulfram didn't like to think of it, the sight reminded him of an old story he'd once heard. It wasn't a scary story in the usual sense, but it still made his hair stand on end. In it, a man known for being mulishly headstrong had gone after the one who'd wronged him, only to be murdered before getting his revenge. But afterwards, bad things began to happen to this villain, the sort that even made powerful wizards refuse to help, until everything he'd built and stole and earned alike was gone, even his life. Of course, what else was the cause, but the stubborn ghost of the adventurer, kept from his afterlife until he'd revenged himself?
The gnome thought about the way certain scary stories, and the truth behind them, worked in Elder Daven. He wondered to himself if maybe this foreigner was enough of a bull-head to stick around after he died. Maybe Ludwig would start getting nasty visits in the night, being on the half-elf's list, as it were. Little Wulfram thought that would make a scary story like that quite funny, if only to himself.
Either way, he was getting ahead of himself. The warrior would have to die first, before he could start his haunting.
Ragar spat a curse, drawing his cloak tighter about himself. The wind rushing over the rooftops was far colder than when it meandered by at ground level, especially without the cover of fog up here. It was a prime location, with clear lines of sight to all three streets and, thanks to the gable on this building, afforded an excellent guard for missiles from below.
Thinking of this, he inspected the gable again, taking in the peculiar scratches along its surface. A different chill eased its leisurely way down his back, goosebumps rippling along his arms. He shook himself, looking away quickly. It was almost as if some unseen observer rested there, annoyed at his intrusion. A ridiculous notion, for there was nothing that could stand atop that outcropping so silently, visibly or otherwise, without collapsing the structure.
To more important matters then. Ragar ran an expert hand over his crossbow, feeling for the minute changes in wood and metal that the growing chill would cause, making the most subtle of adjustments as needed to compensate. The bolt locked in its groove waited patiently for release. Ragar brushed his thumb across its tip, smiling at the dark up-welling from his veins that now stained it.
To this would be added the poison resting in a fish-bladder, his own ingenious addition to the standard design. As the first bolt flew, it would score the narrowest of grooves across the bladder, becoming coated with its content. Future bolts would not be quite so deadly, for with the initial relieving of pressure, the bladder would release the poison only slowly. Still enough, Ragar knew from great experience, to drive even the strongest man into fits of agony.
That was his task here tonight. It was his duty to send that first, terrible missile plunging into the most dangerous of their victims, the wizard. Muscle, blades-skill, marksmanship - all threatening talents, yet paling to insignificance next to the unknown sorceries that they would face if he chose a different target. It would be up to his brothers to eliminate the other dangers.
Marrol he could even see from here, typically slouched beneath a pile of rags, reeking of something that aspired one day to be vomit. No luckless vagrant looked more the part, even down to the red pool dripping from him. Ragar smiled at the memory, this illusion of robbery having been accomplished by them simply bleeding a drunkard earlier and making a slight incision in the blood-bag now tied to Marrol's chest.
When the outsiders were divided and startled, it would up to Marrol to keep them off-balance for those precious few seconds whilst Ragar reloaded and Danith finished off his own. Marrol was good at that, being an adept of a bizarre fighting style from Yrrkune that relied upon unpredictability and obfuscation. When neither combatant knew where he was going to be from one moment to the next, or what attack he would make when or where, Marrol's ability to confuse and distract was unparalleled. If by some chance that was not enough - there were more direct strikes that could cripple as well as any weapon.
Below even this, below the ancient cobbles, below that iron cover to the foundations and sewers of Elder Daven, Danith waited in the strangler's alcove, that hidden indent from which grasping fingers or a taut wire might extend, to squeeze the breath from any descending the ladder. He was a master of this art, patient like a spider and perhaps deadlier still. Ragar had seen him appear from the shadows like he was born of them, to sever an artery or tendon with the lightest of touches, or make play with a weaker enemy by pursuing an exposed eye or groin.
Thinking of his brothers, Ragar recalled the glorious dance they had once performed for the Azure Viper in Hangeria. The exquisite songs that Danith had drawn from the shieldmaidens of Belendale. The beautiful puppetry Marrol had shown with the orcish warmasters in their barbarous fury. Ragar thrilled to remember the applause for his audacious choice of venoms, in the delicate artwork of burned veins and melded skins of human and hositan alike.
At first, they had refused payment for their survival. The ecstasy of their triumph was reward enough and even the Azure Viper, unmoving and unspeaking on that gilded throne, had for the briefest of moments shown interest in this. Had they not seen, with their own eyes, the unreadable gesture to the attendants? Had they not thereafter found themselves immune from prosecution even unto Or City, till at last their restless feet took them beyond Orland?
This, marveled Ragar, was but one of their past glories. They were young still and much beauty lay before them to explore in all manner of ways. There was Kale or even the Wild Lands to the east, yet untapped by their expertise, or Kelerak and Anaria northwards. It was time, perhaps, for them to move on again and find new playthings elsewhere. One last dance of death in Daven, then new realms of experience awaited them.
Ragar wished only for that damnable feeling of being watched to go away.
As typical for this time of year, a thick fog began to roll in from Goblin Bay, the icy eastern winds carrying it to Elder Daven, swaddling the ancient city in a salt-scented gloom. Isolde noted that their gnomish guide barely hesitated even when he could surely see no more than a few feet ahead of him. He had clearly walked this way many times before, despite his earlier assertion that his master required attendance during clear days, and Isolde could already feel the warm glow of vindication keeping the chill at bay.
She wondered from where the ambush would come. If she could figure that out before it happened, it would be a simple matter to pick the appropriate counters. An attack from above was exceedingly unlikely, due to the fog, but not necessarily impossible. Isolde eyed the faint outlines of the rooftops, barely visible, calculating the likelihood of an archer or three lurking there. After some thought, she decided that even if any were stationed there, none would try their luck for fear of hitting their allies on the ground. Thieves and murderers though they undoubtedly were, being able to trust each other was paramount in order to keep their group united against opposition.
"Nearly there," called the gnome from the front. "Two minutes, maybe, then you'll get your meeting with the New Master. Why you'd do that to yourselves I doesn't know, but then, why would I? Nobody tells me nothing they're wanting me to hear, less I'm supposed to tell it to someone else."
Now aware of how close they were, Isolde turned her mind now to the other ambush options. She spotted one of them immediately, the disguise so wonderfully complete that its very inconspicuousness made it stand out. The reveler dumped in that doorway, apparently stabbed and bleeding out, was too perfectly positioned near to their destination. She bit back a smile and instead feigned an expression of worry, turning to Embla and reaching for her hand as though for comfort. When Embla looked down in surprise, Isolde flicked her eyes to the side urgently, baring her teeth momentarily.
"You be much worry, little one," Embla rumbled haltingly, in a nearly impenetrable accent that even Isolde found convincing. "No are stupids danger here. Me looks there and there and there, sees none. Calm you, all safe by me."
Isolde could practically hear Aidan's eyes rolling, but at least the message had got across. The would-be assassin soon would not be. The halfling shook her head, frowning at herself for risking distraction with too-clever-by-half wordplay. That was an amateur mistake she did not intend to make. There were still dangers to look out for and warn the others of.
The gnome stopped suddenly and she renewed her focus, scanning the surroundings. It was surprisingly open here, with at least two other streets merging onto the one they were on, though the smaller one on the left wasn't suitable for launching an attack from, being cracked and loose cobblestones on a steep hill. On the right, however, was a broad avenue leading to the heart of the city, the towering inner walls forming a darker backdrop against the deepening shadows. Easy to hide a half dozen or ten, or more, thugs along there.
Then her attention was pulled back to the gnome by a harsh, metallic scraping sound. Their guide had pulled aside an iron grille set in the wall of the ancient buildings, revealing a small alcove with a ladder that dropped down below street-level, no doubt leading to the foundations of Elder Daven. Knowing that time was short, her mind began to race through the options she had considered for this type of scenario, ignoring the gnome's hasty explanations. Though it felt like years, it was only a matter of moments later that she came to her conclusion.
"This time it is you who shall go first, Aidan," she heard herself announce imperiously, enjoying the role she had to play for the onlookers. "But then, you already knew that. Turnabout is fair play. Quick quick now, man, don't keep us all waiting."
Aidan looked at her with an unreadable expression. She smiled broadly as he stomped into the alcove, cursing under his breath. As he stood over the descent into blackness, Isolde could almost feel Embla's breath quicken in anticipation, whilst her own hands drifted towards the daggers she had so carefully whetted that evening. The moment was nearly upon them. Then Aidan sighed heavily, gripped his warhammer and jumped down the hole, his back to the ignored ladder.
Not three heartbeats had gone by before battlecry in old Altarian sounded and chaos erupted around them.
No sooner had the colossal woman-thing spoken her broken sentences than Little Wulfram knew he had underestimated the adventurers. The classic image of the dim-witted brute she portrayed was just too perfect to be true and his spirit quailed at the thought of the ruthless cunning of the hositan, against whose wits he had dared hope to match his own. She had to have seen through the disguise of the street-level brother, whichever of them it was, then somehow warned the titanic warrior to be aware of him.
Little Wulfram's confidence in his plan was further shaken when she gave her orders to the half-elf. There was a code of some sort hidden in them, one he didn't understand fully, except so far as to see that it meant she was saying to beware of ambush. Or perhaps and even, he thought to himself with growing horror, how to overcome an ambush. Then he saw the half-elf ignore the ladder, thus not leaving his back exposed to the Farlandish brother waiting below, and his suspicions were confirmed.
"Forgive me, great messenger!" he screamed, already turning to run. "The New Master must be troubled by his hunters!"
He dived into the thickening fog, resisting the urge to cough it up and give away his position. A faint shout in elvish reached his ears, meaning the underground brother had begun his attack. Much closer to him, however, was a roar of fury, louder than the thunder, and he knew the others from Farland were playing their parts. Little Wulfram could hear nothing that sounded like spellwords, so he guessed the wizard had been put down already - though it was no consolation to have this one piece of his plan go well.
Corner after corner he turned, until he saw that he had done so to the same ones twice over already. Cursing his panic, he forced himself to stop and get his bearings, lest he continue running in circles. He quickly placed himself on the wrong side of the inner walls, far too close to the Driddaren patrol routes for any self-respecting Davenian's liking. Relative safety lay elsewhere and he resumed his flight, though somewhat more composed than before.
Passing back through the great gates dividing the city's districts, he began coughing violently, the fog thick enough here to choke. Something in the back of his mind stirred at this, but it wasn't clear enough, or important enough, to be recalled. He paused for a while, leaning heavily against a wall, fighting to catch his breath. It was made trickier by the revolting smell that permeated the air, a heavy and sickening aroma like spoiled meat.
When he recovered, Little Wulfram looked around him, wondering if perhaps he'd made a wrong turn despite himself and ended up by a butcher's or furrier's. This seemed not to be the case, confusing him, but then his ears caught the sounds of the ongoing battle between the Farlandish brothers and the adventurers. Little Wulfram was astonished at the tenacity of both parties, but knew now to head in a different direction. Almost immediately he crashed into a tall figure lurching around the same corner he had chosen, knocking the gnome onto the cobbles.
For some seconds, the pair stared at one another silently, each as surprised to see the other. In his head, Little Wulfram screamed at himself to get up and run, but his body would not obey, even as the rotting fingers began to reach for him eagerly. From the streets behind him, the unmistakable shriek of an enraged crow reached his ears. Suddenly Little Wulfram found himself remembering the destiny he had been promised by the messenger of the New Master. If he stood strong, no matter what, he would earn a place at the New Master's side.
But only if he stood strong. Only if he stood. So he stood. He pulled himself back from the clutching horror, heart pounding. It moaned and shuffled after him. Little Wulfram thought for a second that the sounds echoed strangely, then he knew the truth. Standing strong was all well and good, but running and living was better. He turned and ran back the way he came.
Behind him, Elder Daven disgorged its former citizenry.
When he had dropped out of sight of the others, Aidan had still held out the faintest hope that this was nothing more than Isolde's paranoia. Then he had landed heavily some feet below street level in almost complete blackness and his opinion changed. Despite having been denied the opportunity of a slow descent down the ladder, his enemy was already moving in to strike, emerging from a strangler hole, or whatever it was called.
Aidan knew better than to underestimate whoever was ambushing him, for they moved easily in the lightless environment as though born to it. For his part, his elf-keen vision was enough to make out the surroundings well enough and he did not like what he saw. The close confines would make it impossible to use his hammer properly, for one thing - and for another, he could not move from the ladder to allow reinforcement, even assuming his friends were not yet under attack themselves.
There were no other options here. He had time enough to yell a challenge, then the silent assassin was on him. Aidan nearly fell at once under the frenzied assault, barely parrying lightning thrusts at all heights and from all angles, impressed despite himself. For all that he had hoped to strike from hiding, this man was a truly skilled fighter. The nigh-invisible sliver of metal in his hand looked harmless, but Aidan knew it would be either horrifically poisoned or sharp enough to slice through flesh and muscle effortlessly - or, more likely, both.
Time ended. The world beyond was no more. There was only the desperate struggle and the harsh panting in blackness. Soon, the weight of his hammer became too great and at last, Aidan felt his arm fail him. His enemy's blade darted past, but withdrew as the paladin forced himself to defend against the lethal blow. Too late, Aidan saw the ruse for what it was. His side was now completely exposed and the assassin struck with a delicate precision that he could not help but admire.
A blood-crimson flower of agony blossomed and his nerves shrieked their protest. He staggered, falling back against the ladder. He let out a pained, yet somehow appreciative, bark of laughter in salute to the foe who vanquished him. Then Aidan saw the look of bewilderment on his enemy's face. The man was holding up his hand, trying to examine the shattered blade held there.
Sensing the battle was yet to be won, Aidan heaved himself forward, acting without thought. He thrust his warhammer forward, feeling the great head sink into the man's stomach, doubling him over. Summoning all of his strength, he hefted the weapon from side to side, using the very walls as anvils on which to beat the life from this ferocious adversary with brutal, almost metronomic blows.
After several such impacts, Aidan let the broken body slide from his weapon. A hand reached to his injured flank tentatively, feeling for the wound and finding only deceptively light metal. Relief flooded him and somehow Aidan managed to laugh. Neither he nor his father had put much stock in the value of heirlooms valued only as heirlooms and had taken pains to maintain them in readiness for their original purpose. It seemed as though this attitude had been proven justified. What should have been a perfect killing blow had literally broken against his ancestral mail.
Breathing heavily, ribs aching, he gave the limp corpse one last strike to the temple for good measure. Seeing it stay motionless, not even twitching when the skull caved in, he allowed himself to smile with relief. Then he took hold of the first rungs on the ladder and began to climb. He could not rest just yet.
In his ragged disguise, Marrol watched the marks go past, wondering which of them he might have the most fun with. It would be wisest to kill either of the big ones first and quick, but halflings were only half as fun, in his experience. They just lacked stamina. He knew that he was just looking for an excuse to kill something small and helpless. Nothing wrong with that, after all. Even masters like himself weren't obligated to make every artwork their greatest.
Besides, that really big brute with the sword looked almost like it was a woman, but didn't even sound like one, not even when he thought of the various bitch orcs he'd met over the years. He really wanted to know what was happening there. If he got to dance with that one, he'd make sure not to finish it until he found out what was what. There was a story there and Marrol loved stories.
So it was decided. The hositan first, so he could imagine it was the gnome - what was his name again? Ah, no matter - and then he could play with whichever of the fighters did not go to meet Danith. That elf-breed looked like he knew a thing or two about fighting fair, which meant he'd be so much more boring. Danith would love it if he got to play with that one. Their songs of pain so often had such lovely spoken parts to them - very daring artistry.
Just a little more patience. The gnome was finishing his job of luring the marks to where they needed to be. Looked like the half-elf was going to be meeting Danith after all. Marrol smiled to himself, happy for his beloved brother. It was not easy to make fun in a place so dreary as Elder Daven, for all their efforts. Maybe it was about time that they moved on to pastures new. He would suggest that afterwards, he decided. This one last dance of death, with a sweet dessert of the gnome just because, then they ought to leave.
Still, thoughts like that were meant for later times. The half-elf had disappeared, only to scream soon after. Danith was no doubt beginning to compose and Ragar would surely wait no longer. Marrol tensed, then lunged, casting off the filthy rags in all directions. With a sharp tug, the blood-bag tied to him came loose and splattered open behind him, infecting the air with its coppery stench.
As he closed the distance, the cowardly gnome yelled something and began to run away, which amused him immensely. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ragar stand up on the rooftop, take aim and fire at the dwarf that was the most important of the marks. The bolt flew true, diving into the dwarf's chest and burying itself there. The dwarf immediately sank to his knees, blood pouring from his mouth. For a few seconds, he struggled to stand, then collapsed face-down in the widening red pool.
Then a strange thing happened. The dwarf disappeared completely. Ragar's bolt stayed behind, but now it was firmly buried in the street, with no blood about it at all. Marrol very nearly stumbled in his charge, but was composed enough to know their best chance was to eliminate all of the wizard's allies before he could recover himself at all, whatever trickery he was attempting. In fact, more of that would be up to Ragar than they had previously thought.
Marrol watched in bemusement as the hositan was picked up by her gigantic companion and, with an animal bellow that shook the windows, was simply hurled straight upwards to the gable next to Ragar's position. Almost as soon as she touched it, it began to crumble under her weight with a peculiar bird-like squalling that Marrol had no more time to think on, for his immense adversary was already turning to face him, sword in hand, at an incredible speed.
In fact, everything seemed to be moving far faster than it had any right to. Including the fog that swirled away from him as he completed his charge. The dwarf had reappeared again just a few feet away. This was not going to plan. He promptly abandoned thought, for if he didn't know what he was going to do, his enemies could not plan for it, even if they were so fast. For a moment, it even seemed to work, as he slid around behind the wizard before any spell could be cast, giving him the perfect opportunity to break the old dwarf's back.
That was when he noticed he was falling. His legs had just refused to carry him any further and this puzzled him, because they had always served him well before now. One of them had apparently decided to abandon him no less, at this critical moment in battle. As Marrol looked at it, wondering what had happened, the pain began to spread. He gasped as the first few seconds of shock left him and understanding broke through - that everything else was still moving at the speed it ought, but he had been slowed down.
The next thing to break through to him was the great sword that had already claimed a leg. This time it took his head.
Isolde felt her stomach twist in complaint as she flew through the air. Thankfully, the sensation only lasted a couple of seconds, then the ancient gable was within reach. Even as she grabbed it to heave herself the last few feet onto the slope, she felt it give under her weight. She bit back a curse and kicked off it instead onto the guttering, narrowly avoiding joining it on its descent to street level. With all the haste she could muster, she clambered up to the roof proper and drew her daggers.
Not three feet away, crossbow already stowed and sword out, was the would-be assassin that had fired the opening shot in the ambush. He had angled his weapon more defensively than Isolde had hoped he would, almost negating the height advantage she had against him by attacking from below. Experience had clearly taught him, as it had her, that high ground was only to be sought if you were of equal or smaller size to your opponent, otherwise you risked leaving your legs open to attack with almost every move you made. Their eyes locked, unblinking, in a battle that might prove as decisive as any melee.
Feeling the precarious footing on which they stood, Isolde started sidling to a more stable portion of roof, only to stop as he matched her step for step. They both knew she'd have the edge any which way, being lighter and more agile, but it was up to Isolde to decide how much danger to place herself in - if both stayed, the risk of falling or being knocked off was higher, whereas if only the man moved, he'd be vulnerable for precious moments. Isolde kept her face neutral as her opponent remained where he was. She was rapidly re-evaluating his skill with each passing second and was coming to the conclusion that he was no less capable than herself, perhaps even her superior on a less treacherous battleground.
Behind and below, the gable finally hit the cobblestones. The sound ended the duel of resolve and spurred the two to motion. Isolde flicked a wrist, as though throwing a dagger, but the hard-faced man barely twitched his sword to block, turning the action instead into a powerful sweeping blow. It was expertly done, forcing Isolde to choose between leaping from the roof or darting further up it to dodge the strike.
As was her want, Isolde instead chose the third option and jumped backwards, bringing her own blades forward with all the strength she could muster. Sparks flew as the sword slid along the first dagger, knocked off course just enough for the second to push it aside completely, nearly overbalancing them both. The pair fought to regain their balance and Isolde shuddered to see a decidedly interested expression flicker onto the man's face. She had seen that look before. It meant she had aroused more than his professional interest in seeing her dead - killing her would now prove a pleasure as well as a point of pride.
It was clearly time to change tack. Her options were numerous but mostly self-defeating. She would not have the endurance to hold out until one of her allies somehow made their way up to help, nor would she ever want to rely on having to come out on top of the cruel randomness of war. Brokk had no spells available that would not risk downing Isolde and half of the building as well as the assassin. She could not retreat without being followed, or cut down by sword or bolt, or hide. Her opponent was cunning enough that her feints were severely limited and perhaps even a liability, given his far greater strength. It was clear that no single stratagem would suffice here.
With all this in mind, Isolde issued a quick prayer to Bunga Proudfoot, asking him why she was doing this, then charged the assassin, wrists flicking out again. This time, the daggers did fly, one wild and one true, though that expertly deflected up and away. The sword flashed once more, to cut down the impetuous hositan, but hissed through the air far over her head as she dived below it. Naturally, Isolde had had no intention of tackling, let alone trying to wrestle, the man into submission or some kind of mutual destruction.
Carried forward by sheer inertia, Isolde dropped prone a moment before impacting her opponent, disengaging from the fight he had expected and scraping her palms bloody on the ancient tiles to swing into position higher up on the rooftop. He was already moving in response when she kicked at the back of his knee, forcing an immediate retreat to avoid being knocked off-balance.
Seeing him entirely on the defensive, back to the empty air and struggling mightily to bring himself and his weapon to bear, Isolde knew she had won. She allowed a grunt of pain to escape her, injured hands protesting the rough treatment, as she drew two of her backup daggers and threw them at him.
There was not a great deal of strength behind the throw. The toughened leather the man wore even kept the blades from breaking the skin. But it was more than enough to tip him, quite literally, over the edge. He fell in silence, perhaps too shocked even to cry out. Isolde heard him break against the ground easily enough.
Aidan clambered back out of the underground about a minute after Isolde had rejoined the others at ground level. A quick look told him everything he needed to know, namely that everyone he wanted alive was alive and everyone else was dead or fled. The latter of which only applied to that gnome who had led them to this trap.
"If it can be called a positive, at least we are closer to finding the source of the magical anomaly," Brokk assured him when he brought this up. "In no small part due to Isolde's paranoia, we survived his ambush with nary a scratch."
Wordlessly, paladin and rogue both turned blank stares on him, showing their injuries. "Nary a scratch, on myself or Embla, at least. You cannot deny, that went considerably better than it had any right to. That was a fight intended to soften us up, if we were not killed outright, but luck and good planning were very much on our side this time."
"In truth, I would almost rather press on further into this ostensible trap than retreat and try to finish this tomorrow. I still have a respectable magical reserve and as painful as they may be, you cannot reasonably argue that those injuries are in any way serious. If we wait, however, I may be further weakened, to say nothing of our prey knowing of our survival and being able to prepare for a more serious confrontation with us. Our good condition gives us an added element of surprise."
Aidan looked questioningly at Isolde, who started to shrug, then suddenly froze. She held up a hand for complete silence, even closing her eyes so as to give focus to her other senses. When she opened them, it was to stare intently into the fog filling the narrow road that merged onto theirs. For several seconds, the four friends waiting at the crossroads might have been all the world.
Then what Isolde's keen hearing had picked up first became audible to the others - a heavy, arrhythmic tread of feet, some dragged behind their owners or with the wet slapping sound of bare flesh on stone. There was a purposeful feel to the sound, almost akin to an attempted march. Aidan was suddenly very aware of the sharp blood-scent in the air from the three freshly-slain men. Hidden underneath that, barely detectable at first but growing ever stronger, was a far fouler reek of decay.
It was the hungry moan emerging from somewhere in that murk which gave it away, and not just to Aidan. They had all heard it before, in the forgotten catacombs below Mavarra. Behind him, Aidan heard Embla growling in her own tongue, the meaning of the words unknown to him, but yet familiar. The same phrase had preceded a horror that was seared into his memory. He came to a decision quickly.
"Full attack!" Aidan shouted, charging into the fog.
Almost at once, Embla thundered ahead of him, swinging at a shadowy figure that was only just becoming visible ahead. It fell in two pieces, but, horribly, refused to die at once, writhing and clutching at nothing, until Embla crushed its head with her heel. At the same moment, she lashed out in a great arc, splitting flesh and bones of more monsters, barely slowing their near-silent advance. This, if nothing else had, would have told Aidan what they were facing.
Behind him, Aidan heard Brokk's voice raised in a familiar and welcome incantation, then light burst around them, pulses of heat from the fiery sphere burning away the fog immediately around Embla. Illuminated now, the approaching zombies seemed somehow less terrible than before. Then Aidan met their front line, checking their advance with his own formidable strength. Isolde was at his side seconds later, dancing away through the chaos whenever a blow was aimed at her, only to reappear in time to shank and hamstring with impunity, protected by her companions as well as her agility.
For a moment, it seemed the zombies might break, even their near-mindless, ravenous hunger faltering in the face of the suddenness and brutality of the attack. Then a cruel, commanding voice rose up over the hubbub and Aidan saw its equally terrible owner, standing head and shoulders above the rest, rallying the other undead.
It was mostly skeletal, but some portions of its organs remained, hanging grotesquely from the bones. These were mostly stomach and intestine, bloated and diseased, leading up to a lolling tongue that seemed edged with teeth. In one hand, it held a twisted staff topped with a goat skull carved with esoteric symbols. In the other, a thing in the shape of a crow was perched, its eyes shining with a deep red light that was wholly unnatural.
However, for all the horror it inspired - and the obedience it commanded - it was already obvious that the zombies were no match for the adventurers, even in their respectable numbers. Four had already fallen and most of the remaining were damaged or outright incapacitated. The abomination raised its skull staff and began to gather its power, wisps of magical energy glimmering along the engraved symbols, until the air itself trembled around it like a gathering storm.
Suddenly, the not-crow let out a shriek of anger, jumping into the air and disappearing entirely. An instant later, there was a sound like thunder, only magnified many times over and concentrated onto a single tiny point. The skull staff promptly shattered into worthless splinters under the force of the spell, its owner nearly knocked flat. It regained its balance and looked about it, a little dazed, for the source of this offense.
"I admit that such a counterspell was very unconventional by any standard," announced Brokk from the other side of the melee.
He brought up his arm, forking his fingers at the sky and muttering swiftly under his breath. A bolt of lightning hurtled upwards with another thunderclap, quieter than the first. In the next moment, the dwarf brought his arm down. This time, the skeletal horror was knocked down by the discharge.
"But then, I am no longer a conventional wizard."