Storms over Kelerak, Part I - Page 3 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part I

   
I love the details and richness you add to the lore of the World.

FIRST INTERLUDE

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

What he could understand, to an extent, was their reason for forcing themselves to these peaks. They carried items they thought valuable, crafted from gold or silver, often set with polished gems and decorated with the most intricate of carvings. In exchange for these, they would receive ironwood and maybe even steel, if they haggled well, and permission to travel even higher up the mountain to the tribes that dwelt there - though only the greediest, most foolish flatlander would ignore the pain in his chest and the dizziness behind his eyes to make that journey. Few of that sort had the strength to survive what they felt as the thinnest and coldest of airs.

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

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

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

As with all nemedenes hosted by a Risarvinni tribe, Daath would be granted the same rights and protections under law as any member of the tribe, and even its chieftain would struggle to overrule a lookout's refusal to be joined. But when it came to the Aslaug? The Aslaug made the laws, and enforced them with blood and terror such that Daath tried his best not to envisage. They were beyond reproach or censure, beyond priest or chieftain: mortal wives of the solitary Risarvinni god and themselves considered to border on the divine. What Aslaug wanted, Aslaug got.

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

*****

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

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

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

The silence between them stretched out for several seconds. Daath was about ready to break it with some inanity, when the Aslaug turned her head to look back down at the flatlanders. There was no wind, but the great Risarvinni locks - so like the braids of a flowering nemedene maid, Daath caught himself thinking - brushed out nonetheless, a frame for the sharp disgust on her face.

"Ishians," she stated as though commenting on the weather. "Once they might have been all the world, from frost to sand. Now look at them, how far they have fallen. Vultures wheedling and whining for steel, pledging gold in exchange. Then the Kunese rats come crawling, pleading for gold for their masters. They leave their treasures behind and we give them to the tiger cubs of Badala. Then Sutherlanders seeking tales, and the Turuks with their trinkets, and Havenish raiding for plunder, so come again the Ishians for steel to fight with."

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Once they met a true gigant, of the pale and willowy Aldran nation-clan that were so reminiscent of Swan Children. It sat all but unmoving beside the path, watching them approach, its head twitching horribly to a new position each time they passed from its direct sight. When they were no more than three armspans distant, it rose to its feet, a spear of liquid starlight in its hand and a curse of ebon bleakness on its tongue. Daath had his third bow ready before the first syllable fell, arrow nocked and aimed and loosed at the flashing eye nearest him.

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

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

He could survive them. He could continue to follow the Aslaug - this was a new realization, that he was indeed following, no matter that he walked alongside her or sometimes ahead - and make memories for his clan that reached beyond Gorug. But the Aslaug did not want him to do this. Perhaps she was disappointed with his gentleness at the end of the gigant's life. Perhaps she was proud of it, or indifferent, or had merely grown bored with his presence. It might be any number of reasons and Daath did not care to know which it was, especially if it was because she had found him as lacklustre as the flatlanders she had condemned.

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

Love it. It's always cool to learn more about Embla.

OK, that should be enough for the first upload of this tale. Could've put in an extra section or two, but I felt this cliffhanger was a respectable enough cutoff point.

>>>>>>>>>>

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

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

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

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

"Any given spell retains the same fundamental qualities and limitations, whether it is cast by a wizard or a warlock or a cleric, or even a bard. It is the varying manners of accessing the energies required to cast that same spell which accounts for any difference it displays in practice. A wizard thus needs his spellbook, a bard his music, and so forth. But, as we all know, not every spell may be cast by every spellcaster. Across every difference, every variation, in all schools of magical study and theory, this is the Keystone Axiom upon which all modern understanding of magic is built."

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

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

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

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

That's awesome. Yeah, that's perfect for the first installment. Please send it all to me as a word doc!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting action, mixed with philosophy as usual. It's great.

Something I've believed for quite a while now: you can sympathise, even empathise, with pure evil and still be entirely comfortable with its extermination. There is just so much out there!

>>>>>>>>>>



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haha that was really amusing. I like the part about how the Skywings playfully burned down the building. Also, the echoes the previous story, with the Imp, are cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

The halfling frowned, put on the spot. "Conspiracies?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







 

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