Storms over Kelerak, Part I - Page 7 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolde`s forlorn expression was painful to see, and Brokk wanted to wipe it away at once. He could think of only one way: "Tell us about yourself. Tell us what we don`t know and can`t guess. And we will do the same, right Embla?"

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

*****

THIRD INTERLUDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

As requested, Isolde Amero Ballussia stepped up next to the asharzimal, avoiding looking him in the eye, and turned to face her vast family. Scattered throughout the crowd were the watchful, protective faces of her immediate relatives, and none more so than her father Panta. Technically he was more at risk here than anyone else, for he was not a member of the Association and was only protected from its prohibitions against freelancing by virtue of having married one of its most powerful guildmasters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a very long meeting.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





>>>>>>>>>>

Asharzimal, a hositan portmanteau of their words for Dark Folk and elf, given to the monstrous hybrid offspring of the same, most "usually" oluk and drow. Extremely rare, not least due to the unlikelihood of a female of either race surviving conception and pregnancy, but because both races loathe these mule abominations to an extent unseen even with normal orc-blood progeny among the Liberated Kingdoms. In oblique 'honor' of their patron, they are referred to by other races as Vornites, but are almost never acknowledged openly as existing, even in such places as the Wintervale!

In other news, one last entry will follow on from this, then this first part will be finished and ready for the update. Also a further mention of Gemullean smithing, which I am currently using as the WoF version of Damascus steel-smithing. You would get equal or superior quality in pre-Occupation Wawmar or among the elf-smiths of the Belendale, but for human work, it's pretty damned good stuff. Masterwork effectively.

I love it all. Aiden is going to get some, great scene with Isolde, love the Smithing details. Now technically according to the lore rules, elves are the only race orcs can’t bread with, though. If it’s important enough to the story, we could make an acception for oluk and drow I suppose.

I had looked for that prohibition* (though obliquely referenced with the offspring being sterile in any case since the races were never meant to breed) but must've overlooked it. It's not important enough for me to insist on, I just wanted to bring out a creature even a mother could not love. I'm quite happy to change the origin. Any thoughts?

*EDIT: Found it. Of course, the rules for playing half-orcs. I'd looked in the main entries for elves and orcs instead. Yeah, that makes sense.

EDIT2: I could make Leigdaith a dultan, a half-drow? That way you still get the portmanteau making sense, as the halflings would still consider dultan to be drow enough for their insult of "dark folk's elf" to apply.

Yeah, that works well!

OK then, I'll do the rewrite of that when it comes to pulling it all together for the update. I'm just finishing up one of the most irritating new archetypes (I've been trying to crack the foundation of it since starting on Eruna properly!) and deciding on whether to have the Blacksun Legion as a publication-exclusive or a website update (leaning towards website, as the martial classes have already received a fair bit of love so far, particularly the fighter*), then perhaps overnight Wednesday/Thursday I'll post the last bit of Part I.

*Huh, actually on review, the only character class that has not got anything new from Eruna thus far is the cleric. Perhaps I could think up a couple of new Channel Divinity uses to be hashed out and made viable...now where did I put those Kingdoms of Kalamar sourcebooks?

That all sounds awesome. I can help you come up with an entirely new Divine Domain. Might as well go all the way, right?

The room was remarkably
It's quite jarring to see that word used here, I know, but I have no replacement at present. Farland? What WoF culture would have left the appropriate impression behind?
spartan, and Aidan briefly felt himself back in his temple cell below Zel City upon entering. There were no decorations or extraneous items beyond the absolutely necessary, everything apparently stored away in a large crate tucked away under the bed, which despite being an inanimate object somehow looked surprised to have a so-called donkey`s breakfast - an actual straw mattress - laid across its boards.

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

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

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

Aidan squirmed. "It is nothing of the sort. And please do not call me 'sir knight'. My name is Aidan of Zel."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ooh-hoo!" it squealed in mock terror, its ghastly natural voice reverting to that of its womanly disguise. "You are a big tough fighter! I don`t think little me can handle all of you!"

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

"Definitely dead," she announced confidently to the dumbstruck room.

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

It sounded like: "You c-...all just...right off!"

*****

EPILOGUE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niklaus began to understand, and quailed inside.

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

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

THUS ENDS THE FIRST PART OF "Storms over Kelerak".

Hope you enjoyed it!

Loved it! It was hilarious. I was like, “Are we really getting a sex scene.... ooooh!” Haha poor Aiden still didn’t get any.

Spartan as an adjective is fine. Changing it would probably just confuse readers. Please send me the compiled version. Thanks man!







 

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