Storms over Kelerak, Part I - Page 5 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part I

   
Nope. I hear lots of good stuff about it though. And speaking of reading things, my local "All tabletop games played/sold here" shop now has a physical copy of the WoF War of Immortals sourcebook in its "take a look at these" library.

Oh, the succubus and one of her names reminded me of a character in that series. It’s a fun read.

Cool!!!! If you get a chance, take a pic and post it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah man, tense and powerful!

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

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

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

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

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

Aidan saw death waiting as the monstrous jaws widened. Then they slammed shut again as a knife flew out of nowhere, its hilt striking the wolf just behind the left eye, momentarily dazing the beast. A very distinct hositan voice followed in complaint: "The one time I don`t want it to spin..." and deep inside his thoughts, he allowed himself a laugh. It seemed about time that Isolde had her own share of bad luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your combat descriptions are always fun to read!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dire wolf laying the smack down!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

"What must I do to set her free?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was intelligent enough to understand that.

Aww, a happy ending. But is Brokk dead?







 

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