Mists of Daven, Part II - Page 2 - Myth-Weavers

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Mists of Daven, Part II

   
Keeping your eyes open and ears shut was a difficult, but vital part of surviving the gauntlet that was Swallowsnest House. With polite nods, Little Wulfram acknowledged each of the towering figures blocking the curtained chambers, whilst pretending not to hear the sounds from within, particularly the ones that suggested the guest was being treated, or acting, as less than a man should. That the House specialty was in catering to those tastes, and others of far greater deviancy, was similarly unremarked upon.

Moving deeper into the property, the gnome glanced up from time to time, always whispering a little prayer to the Wild Sage Dekk to protect the swallows that had nested in the building`s rafters since before the occupation. He knew it wasn`t particularly gnomish of him to feel so affectionate towards birds, but there was something impossibly beautiful about them. His heart would catch in his throat to hear them sing, and more than once had he crept away from the eyes of others to cry over their dances at sunset.

Little Wulfram paused to collect himself at the final corner. He thought about everything the messenger of the New Master had told him. It wouldn`t do to let on that he`d been singled out for a good reason. The rest of the lads would be jealous at best, dangerous at worst. Sure, they wouldn`t try anything openly, but how often had he seen a knife go astray in a fight, all accidental-like?

He took a deep breath, hunched his shoulders and peeked around the corner, as though nervous of what he might see there. The action itself was his normal way of showing back up at their rooms, but it felt so wrong to him now. No longer in the shadow of whatever horror had hoped to hunt him, Little Wulfram felt confident, brave even. Already, pretending to be the group`s fearful stunted pushover again grated on his nerves. He knew the act would be necessary for a while yet. He tried to think of it like just another part of moving through the House, putting on a show that things weren`t what they were.

"Er, `scuse me boys," he stuttered haltingly to the unsettling trio of guards around the corner. "It`s, um, me? I mean, it is me, uh, you can see that. Not saying you can`t, obviously. Um, I`m back. Ain`t no word today. Very quiet out there."

For a second, Little Wulfram felt his composure slip, and the act he was putting on was real again. Danith, Marrol and Ragar were very good at their jobs, which were always nasty and painful when they got going. They had come to Daven from the eastern reaches of Farland itself, and had soon found their niche as the cruelest heavies of the gang. Even the half-orcs respected them for the sheer number of things they thought up to punish people who crossed them.

Just seeing them gave Little Wulfram the chills. Creepy twins, he said to himself, he could deal with, but creepy triplets was a whole other thing. He didn`t even know which was which, and they always finished each other`s sentences, and didn`t even need to look to avoid bumping into each other, and did everything together, and were just plain weird. Like how after one nasty fight, Marrol had lost most of his right ear, so the other two cut theirs to match. Or how they often walked out at night, showing up the next day in dirty clothes and strange smells, smiling and laughing.

He forced a hopeful grin and added, "Maybe, um, you could tell the others if they ask? Cos it`s been a long day and, ah, well, I, uh, need some sleep."

The three blinked at him, all at once, sending a shiver down his spine. One of them sighed deeply, shaking his head as though in disappointment. When he stopped, another waved a dismissive agreement, then the third stood aside from the doors just enough to let the gnome creep inside and get to his own bed. There was a mocking smirk on each Farlandish face as Little Wulfram plucked up his courage and scurried down the hall to pass them.



>>>>>

Just a quick one for the moment. I'll almost certainly add another piece in the next 24 hours, but inspiration struck me really hard on this bit. I might even need a literary bandage.

Great imagery. I like the triplets and the love of birds.

The first Little Wulfram knew of his services being needed again was, as usual, delivered with a rude awakening as he was simply rolled out of his bed only a few hours after crawling into it. He sat up sleepily, thankful for the House being wealthy enough to afford carpets, and mumbled a question to the man standing over him.

"We got a meet happening," came the answer. "Whole bunch of 'faces' have been reporting back to the bosses for the last hour, hour-half. Not looking too happy, neither. Seems like some easterner`s come a-visiting. Zelish, or I`m a troll. Must be big to send one of theirs all the way down here. We`ll need all you can get from them to keep the Master happy. Be at Ruby`s for the third bell."

Little Wulfram scowled, but knew better than to argue. Instead, he splashed cold water on his face, pulled on some of his more decent clothes, and trudged through the House to the assigned room. Its usual occupant was sitting just outside the curtained entryway, a pipe stuffed with dregs of Southern Star leaf gripped between stained teeth, satisfaction glittering in dark eyes. Ruby Firestouch, real name unknown, was easily the oldest and most infamous resident of Swallowsnest House, a former dancer in the courts of Belendale who had actually lived through the occupation of Elder Daven.

"How long did they pay for?" Little Wulfram asked her, standing just outside the cloud of smoke wreathing the elderly elf.

She grinned back, saying nothing, but letting him see the golden shine capping one of her back teeth. It was answer enough, and it told Little Wulfram several things. Paying in gold meant a kind of insanity, for no moneylender in the city could give change for it. Gold was reserved for treasure vaults and dragon hoards, not bribing a harlot to give up her room. It was the clearest kind of message, that these people had confidence enough to walk into this nest of thieves and murderers, announce great wealth and power, then walk back out again.

Small wonder the other 'faces' were not happy about how their meets had gone. None of the bosses would want to make a move, just in case it wasn`t a bluff, and especially if these foreigners really were Zelish. There were many horror stories about what went on in Zeland these days, some of which even those Farlandish brutes claimed were probably true. It was enough to make even the most brazen of bosses wary.

Little Wulfram took a breath, then hurried past Ruby, trying to ignore the great plume of smoke she puffed into his eyes, knowing how much he loathed it. Petulantly, he wished the House was less known for its old-fashioned, elegant drapes and curtains, and more for solid oaken doors he could slam behind him and shut out her cackles. But then he was inside and it really didn`t matter anymore. At a glance, he saw that the worst possible scenario lay before him. He had spent too long under the heel of those bigger and meaner than him to be confused by appearances.

Leaning up against the far wall was a half-elven warrior, steel in his eyes and a scar along his face that spoke of desperate and bloody battles. The redness of his hair alone would have given him away as a Zelish native, but the style of his clothes was an equally clear giveaway. Sitting in front of him, calmly examining some of the explicit visual aids decorating the chamber, was a similarly tough-looking halfling woman. Her gaze fell on Little Wulfram and he noted there was no sign of the instinctive dislike for gnomes that the hositan usually displayed.

She had the look of a gutter-runner, who had needed to fight every day of her life just to stay alive, but there was a measure of self-control that Little Wulfram dreaded to see. Together with the other hints - the payment in gold, the hard look of the warrior, even the faint callouses on her fingertips - it all combined into one overwhelming likelihood. The pair very nearly had an aura of power about them, not unlike that of the Old Master.

"Isolde of the Ballusias," the halfling introduced herself bluntly. "Sit, please. I hope you are more helpful than the rest. Aidan here is becoming...tetchy."

Little Wulfram spared the half-elf a second look, and concurred. He knew that if he didn`t play this game perfectly, or gave away that he knew the game was even being played, he would almost certainly end up dead. These were no mere 'face' and muscle from over the border. These were adventurers. There could be nothing more dangerous, more unstable, than that.

Haha... murder hobos indeed.

Isolde leaned back in the chair, fighting the urge to rub her temples. The gnome was a perceptive one, she could tell. He said all the right things at all the right times, but there was a barely perceptible tremor in his voice that told he had seen through their personas. Perhaps it was because he was one, maybe even only one, of the small folk that had to make a living here. Half-orcs were abnormally numerous and even the elves they had seen lacked the delicate build characteristic of their race. She guessed he had needed to learn to see past appearances quickly in order to survive. Admirable, but it made her job that much harder.

"Magic is very interesting, don`t you think?" Isolde asked the gnome rhetorically, noting the delay before he forced a confused expression. "Especially in places like this, the very heart of the old Davenian realms. So much history, just lurking below the surface. Makes you wonder why there aren`t more stories about wizards and such coming here to dig up the past. All you really hear these days is dull, old, childish horror stories about the walking dead."

Instantly, the gnome snapped at her, "Would outsiders be happier hearing the new stories? Or would they go running back home? Maybe we ain`t big and tough like Zelish nor Orlanders, but we still lives here when you leave. So what I`m wanting to know is, what is it you`re looking for here? What do your bosses need of ours?"

Isolde smiled broadly, finally seeing her opportunity. Without exception, the others she had spoken to had been eager to agree with her assessment. They boasted and bragged, derided and denied the truth of Daven`s lamentable infestation of the undead. This one, however, had gone the opposite route. Hostility was an extremely rare ploy that Isolde had been taught to avoid unless you were, or could bluff that you were, on vastly superior ground to the other negotiator. And, given what she had heard from the others so far, she wasn`t getting the impression of a bluff.

"Which of your bosses are you talking about exactly...Little Wulfram?" she asked, her smile all teeth as the gnome`s eyes momentarily widened. "The old one, the shrouded Cadocian? Or the mysterious new one? I heard tell he spelled up something really nasty on one of your boys a few days back. A sort of something that is very interesting to wizards not of Daven. Ours wants to know details."

*****

In the back of his mind, Little Wulfram invoked Vornoth to punish the loose tongues of the 'faces' that had preceded him, whilst in the front of his mind, he begged Dekk to grant him salvation. He felt so stupid. Of course these adventurers would have heard of the fate of the Old Master and Akkanta. What mattered now was to persuade them that he mattered so very little to the New Master - even though the scary messenger had singled him out specifically - that they had no need to kill him.

"All I do is deliver messages," he said truthfully, thinking quickly. "Nobody cares if I gets eaten on the way somewhere. That happens sometimes. It`s not old stories you always hear, but nobody wants to admit that some of them are new. I guess I can say so because nobody cares if I`m one of the new scary stories."

He noticed a softening on the face of the Zelish warrior, almost like pity. The halfling, on the other hand, now looked at him like halflings were supposed to look at gnomes. Little Wulfram began to see how he could escape this nightmare. It would be very risky, but there was a good chance he could get them killed trying to be heroic. A little bit more truth-telling and the lie would be perfect.

"The Old Master was getting soft. Not so soft that one of the boys would try for him, but the New Master ain`t one of the boys. He just showed up one day and said he`s running things from now on. His messenger did the saying, anyways, he just stood there and...well, the Old Master didn`t have a whole lot left of himself after. He only comes out now to keep the boys in line. Otherwise, it`s just me going out to hear any message he has for us."

The adventurers were clearly interested. The half-elf had a look in his eyes that was almost hungry. Little Wulfram had seen it before, whenever one of the more ambitious boys had heard of their boss` weakness. He felt relieved. Half of his work was done. He only needed to explain to the halfling why she mustn`t kill him just yet. Time for the lie.

"The New Master said we can`t just go anytime to hear what he has to say. We has to wait until the night is as day, when the air is so clear it can hurt to breathe. Oftentimes there ain`t no message anyways, but I still needs to go out just in case."

He forced himself not to hold his breath. If nothing else did, that would undoubtedly give the game away. Little Wulfram saw the half-elf come to what he probably thought was understanding, though he`d obviously fallen into Little Wulfram`s trap. The key part of this was tricking the hositan. She was completely silent as she thought over the options. At last, she stood up and beckoned the half-elf to follow.

"You will take us to the meeting place tonight," she said, with all the intensity of a judge passing sentence. "Do not argue. Be outside at dusk, or Aidan will drag you out. I`m sure you appreciate that nobody will try to stop him."

That, Little Wulfram bitterly accepted, was an inarguable truth.

*****

"It doesn`t have to be," insisted Aidan stubbornly, though he felt defeated already.

Isolde sighed deeply, listing off the reasons one more time. "He didn`t argue about the undead, he didn`t pretend to be a valued part of his gang, he didn`t deny the magical ability of his 'New Master', he offered the specific circumstances under which he had to go out. Conclusion? Trap."

Brokk and Embla murmured agreement. Since returning and bringing them up to speed on the day`s investigations, Isolde had spent all her time devising stratagems and tactics, and plots and gambits, and counter-schemes and double-ambushes, none of which made any sense to anyone except her, but were of such confident intricacy that the others had resolved to trust her judgement. All of them hinged on her insistence that they were being led into a trap, which left a sour taste in Aidan`s mouth.

"He was so very sincere about it all though," the paladin said unhappily. "If I had never before seen one struggling through life, bullied and treated as expendable by all, I would still have known that was the case for him. It is so - so..., it, hmm. It is just so difficult to see him as a villain leading us to our doom. It doesn`t fit."

A bark of laughter from Isolde made it very clear what she thought of that. In her experience, it fit perfectly well, precisely because he was such a put-upon individual. He correctly saw them as a threat and hoped to get rid of them, either by luring them to their deaths and thus earning a bit of respect for his cunning, or by having them kill off those above him and giving him the opportunity to make something more of himself. Either way, so long as he stayed clear of the fighting, there was apparently little chance of this making things worse for him.

Embla looked at Aidan thoughtfully. "I am still not very sure of some different meanings, but the word you use most often is 'paladin', when you say just what you do. I have heard that a paladin can feel evil nearby, even when it hides in the soul. But you do not? Aidan?"

"That is almost true, but it is a little more involved than that," Aidan explained, somewhat reluctantly. "I cannot just look at someone and say 'Ah, there is an evil man!' Not unless he is a glamered fiend, or somesuch. At most, I could sense if he carried an item of great divine power, whether sacred or profane. Perhaps once paladins could identify morality at a glance, but that is no longer among our abilities. Thank Heshtail for that."

Frowning, Embla began to protest, but Aidan cut her off. "Evil has a taste. It is bile. With sharp legs that snip at your skin, making an opening just large enough to crawl inside. It tickles your stomach until you want to vomit, but you cannot, because that would bring the taste back. You feel it scurry around. A silent ringing in your ears. A blood-warm trickle from your nose, but it is dry when you try to wipe it. It sticks your tongue to your teeth so you cannot speak, excepting vileness and untruths. You curl up inside your head and scream at it to stop laughing at you, but it refuses to stop. Then the first heartbeat is over and the second begins."

Aidan fell silent, his eyes wide and staring. After a few moments, Embla reached over and gripped his shoulder, feeling cold sweat beneath her hand, looking shamefacedly at the others. They had all heard the stories, but had dismissed them as lies from the followers of proscribed faiths. This was the first time the underlying truth had been proven to them.

It was a grim irony that the final act of initiation into the Lord of Mercy`s noblest circle of defenders was a cruel and scarring one, designed to fortify the resolve of the new paladins. Having been tutored in how to detect the lasting auras of hallowed ground and celestial beings, they were then exposed to the opposite sensations, courtesy of a Living Martyr. These were servants of Goodness, but risked their souls by summoning fiends and casting profane magics, enabling others to learn how best to defeat enemies who made use of such weapons.

"It can be no worse than what we have seen together," offered Brokk hesitantly, then with greater surety in his voice. "Tell us. It will help. We listen well."

Aidan looked at the dwarf hollowly, then took a deep breath and nodded.

>>>>>

FIRST INTERLUDE

Far below Zel City, at the subterranean confluence of the Colfin and Dimrune rivers, were forbidden temples carved into the ancient stonework by artisans in hiding. Here, amid the sewer-stench and oversized vermin that drifted through regularly, the faithful prepared for the day when the Dark Occupation would end, when evil would be driven from the land. The safeguards were numerous and devious enough to prevent all but a few from finding this place. Even fewer would ever leave.

Aidan had spent five years chasing the slightest tale of the temples, daily risking arrest and execution for heresy. When at last he found them, it had taken another two years to prove himself free of corruption, the clerics and inquisitors of that outlawed world ensuring he was not a spy. He did not begrudge this time spent, knowing it was vital for their continued existence. After his release, he threw himself into the training offered to become a paladin, to carry the fight back to the surface.

He had excelled in some exercises, performed adequately in others. In some cases he held himself back so as to help those who struggled, earning a fair bit of good-natured ridicule. Always he spoke of his determination to prove that the true faiths were not defeated, merely regathering their strength in preparation for a decisive counter-strike. To a few, he admitted he had fought so hard to be admitted here because his father had forbade it. To none save the gods, who knew already, Aidan explained that this was because his brother had gone before him and failed.

At last, the day came when Aidan, among several other students, was to be accepted as a full paladin. As with the rest of them, the half-elf was terrified and not ashamed to show it. For him though, the fear had a far more personal twist to it. Initially, this last test had only scared him because of its importance and the unknown quality of what he would be made to feel. Then he had been told the name of the Living Martyr that would be assigned to his group and his strength had promptly abandoned him.

One by one, his fellows passed through the archway that led to their final test, doors slammed and barred behind them. None returned, for it was not the exit - just one more way to unsettle those still waiting their turn, forcing them to confront their doubts. Eventually it was only Aidan left and the cleric waiting for some unseen signal to send him through. The wait was interminable, though in truth it cannot have been more than five minutes. At last the cleric smiled, a little sadly it seemed, then stood aside. Aidan steeled himself and stepped inside the chamber.

He flinched as the way back was sealed. The smell of sulphur was nearly overwhelming. Several candles were set in the walls, providing just enough illumination to confuse his elven senses, which struggled to focus in the pitiful half-light, half-dark. A pair of huge centipedes scurried about, horribly audible but barely visible. Aidan was sure the giant vermin fully disappeared when he wasn`t looking, apparently just to reappear alarmingly close by if he actually made an effort to find them in the gloom. Some distance away, a figure he knew all too well waited, features clear even in this light.

Aidan licked his lips nervously. "It is so good to see you again, Kirne."

"That will change," his brother said tonelessly, as the two quasits abandoned their centipede forms and lunged.

*****

Aidan heard a scream. He judged it was his own, but it was difficult to tell for sure. A flapping, shrieking hell-creature was trying to scratch his eyes out. Another was biting at his ankles, lashing at the back of his knees with a pointed tail and doing a very good job of keeping him off-balance. He flailed wildly, trying to dislodge the pair so that he could fight back, but hit nothing except air.

Reeling, blinded, he felt panic wrap its cold fingers around his heart. The urge to curl up in a ball and scream until everything stopped was overpowering. How could he have been so foolish? What possible madness had taken hold of him to make him think he could do anything of value? He couldn`t fight against the monstrous powers of the Dark Occupation - he was clearly losing against two very minor demons. There was no hope for him, for Zeland, for any of the enslaved lands, if this was the best he could do.

"You came here with the memory of Goodness and Purity." Aidan heard his brother`s voice from across a gulf of terror and shame. "Feel now the power of Evil and Corruption. Know that you are defeated."

The words had the feel of ritual about them, breaking through Aidan`s unreasoning panic. He remembered that he was being tested, specifically for his worthiness to face the greatest of horrors, enemies of all that was holy, that could slay him with a thought. Against such foes, victory might amount to no more than standing your ground and facing death with dignity. At that moment, Aidan understood that defeat was a fate you chose, not one that befell you.

He reached into himself, feeling for the spark of divinity that marked his allegiance to Heshtail. It was the merest flicker of light, but it was enough to pierce the darkness enveloping him. An understanding of the primal embodiments of good and evil burst into his mind, expanding outwards. His eyes were still closed, but Aidan could see the quasits attacking him, their demonic energies blazing like bonfires at night.

The sensation was ghastly. He could feel their hate for him, their innate desire to harm him, even the undertones of their delight at his distress. His skin crawled at their ageless malice. Ten thousand times they might be called to the mortal world and ten thousand times they might be cast back to Hell, but never would they cease wishing to inflict suffering. But brighter still, purer in every way, was the very air he breathed and the feel of the stones beneath his feet.

Slowly, Aidan reached out and grabbed the quasit scratching at his eyes. It struggled for a moment, then dissolved to nothing. The other minor demon scrabbled underfoot for a few seconds more before it too vanished. Aidan opened his eyes and closed his mind`s eye to the cosmic window through which he had briefly peered. He felt strangely calm. There was no pain and, when he lifted his hands to his eyes, searching for the wounds he had suffered, he found none.

"This chamber is hallowed ground. Any fiend brought into it is rendered impotent. They cannot harm you, though they certainly terrify and disgust. If you remember your training, you can withstand that and imprint in your memory what they made you feel. Now, child of light, you are ready. Be ever merciful - paladin."

His brother`s words sounded as though they came from a great distance. Aidan wondered if this was a side-effect of shock, though he wasn`t quite sure what sort of shock. Certainly there was the experience of being attacked by demons, albeit harmlessly. The spiritual feel of them was equally certain to rattle the sturdiest of nerves. He suspected, however, that the biggest shock was learning what had happened to Kirne. Now it was obvious what their father had meant by Kirne failing on his own quest.

Aidan was still thinking about this revelation as the adrenaline left his system and he fell into an exhausted sleep.

Another great installment. I enjoyed seeing the D&D abilities described in literature terms.

Thanks. Took me a while to be happy with how to reference the change from the straightforward 3e's Detect Evil to 5e's...Detect Mostly Beings Aligned With Planar Forces. The full spell of Detect Evil and Good is even worse than the paladin's ability. Mind you, I disapprove of the handling of alignment anyway.

I noticed how you did that. Well done. Is there more to come for this month's update?

I will get a bit more out, yes, although how much manages to get edited properly for publication is up for debate. I know what the next section needs to be. I just need to get it working. If that makes any sense.

They must know something was up, Little Wulfram thought to himself, considering how readily they had agreed to his plan. He eyed the Farlandish triplets again suspiciously. Bringing them into play was less risky than dealing with those adventurers, but the payoff would be even greater if his plan worked. It made sense to take that little bit of extra risk.

"No questions before we start?" he asked them, trying to feign concern. "This is a big job, you know. We don`t want to get the Master upset with us."

One of the brothers glared at him witheringly. "We are perfectly aware of our role in this, stunty. If we wanted -"

"- and we are very tempted to be wanting many things that you would dislike us wanting," continued another. "We might simply leave you here. Or perhaps even there, when we all arrive and everything becomes fun. Not that -"

"- for all the amusement we could get from that, it would really be worth the effort," the first of them finished. "After all, if we left you behind anywhere, we`d have to get someone else to run everywhere for us. What, Danith?"

Danith shook his head in mock despair, wagging a finger at his brothers in playful censure. They stared at him for a moment, then all three burst out laughing in perfect synchronicity. Then all at once, they stopped, took a recovering breath and continued readying themselves for the evening.

Little Wulfram shuddered, goosebumps tickling his arms and nape. The few doubts he still had about this quickly dissolved. There was no chance the adventurers were strong enough to kill the New Master, even if Little Wulfram was such a sneak to get them to ambush him, but there was no sense making the New Master annoyed at the effort. Worst came to worst, the triplets would kill the adventurers and things would stay normal. Best came to best, the triplets all die softening up the adventurers and the New Master sees that Little Wulfram has enough smarts to take out many threats all at once.

All he had to do now was steer clear of trouble whilst everybody else had at each other. He was good at doing that, he knew. The rest of the boys all mocked him for being little and being scared, but even the biggest and bravest of them got hurt. Little Wulfram smiled at the thought. Actually, the biggest and braver you were, the more you got hurt. He got kicked around by the boys, but he`d never broken a bone and still had all his teeth. So who was the stupider, he asked himself, happy to know that the answer was not him.

"Ready, stunty. First, wipe that silly smile off your face. That`s better. Now, you be a good boy and take us to our fun time. We`re looking forward to showing these fakes what happens when you mess with the real deal. Hop to it, runt."

Little Wulfram kept his expression neutral. The insults didn`t hurt anymore anyways. He just wanted to be sure he didn`t give his game away to them. Not just yet.

*****

Embla stepped back from the anvil and set the hammer down, breathing heavily. It had not been her best work, but until she was back to her old self, it would be her best effort. To judge by Aidan`s face, it was also better than they had hoped. Like its owner, his warhammer had suffered considerable abuse beneath the Ruin Woods. Several of its banded grips had been jarred loose and the head itself lacked its former stability, but she had persevered and put to rights the worst of it.

The paladin adopted a combat stance, angling the great weapon parallel to his body. He twisted to the right, bringing it up to deflect an imaginary strike, pushing the danger away from himself and exposing his enemy`s side. The opportunity was so obvious that to take it would be a fool`s act, so Aidan side-stepped left quickly, repeating the block on his other side - for his adversary had used the inertia of being pushed away to spin on his heel, his shield interposing itself between apparent vulnerability and warhammer. Had Aidan pressed his supposed advantage, it would have left his head and torso open to a quicker, decisive attack.

Embla watched the imagined duel play out, appreciating the display of skill and restraint that Aidan showed. He looked so very fragile by comparison to the warriors of her people, but she had seen him in enough battles to know how tough he really was. It was easy to underestimate him as an opponent, not least because he hid his armour beneath his shirt and cloak, so he seemed unprotected. The mail was good chained steel too, elf-light and clearly heirloom of a family that knew its value in combat.

She and Isolde were very different. Herself because only a very few of the Risarvinnae bothered with the heavy armours so beloved of these northern peoples, not least due to the dangers it posed in their homes; Isolde because most of her skillset suffered when her mobility was constrained. But whereas Isolde had a talent for patching together all manner of scraps into serviceable armour, constantly modifying the peculiar assembly she wore, Embla scarcely even relied on thick cloth to keep from injury. Scars danced across her body, proud testament to countless battles and hunts, each with a history of their own that she could recite without hesitation.

It was strange, Embla thought, how four people of such widely differing backgrounds and ideologies had come together - and, far more bizarrely, stayed together despite all that divided them. The strengths they each brought to the group more than compensated for their individual weaknesses, which in turn helped to define the paths of self-improvement they chose, thus giving them even greater strength.

She was glad to have come this far north in her quest. It broke her heart to think that one day, she would have to make the decision to return south. For all that they survived together, Embla knew that her friends had not yet reached the heights that her kin would require to accept them in their territory. Not as they deserved to be accepted, in any case.

*****

As Isolde sat quietly nearby, still plotting out all the possible scenarios for their excursion, Brokk sat in quiet meditation, fingers resting lightly on the ancient stone tablet before him. It was an unusual form of reflection for a wizard, but Brokk was not a usual wizard. Once he had carried the physical trappings of his trade as any might, in esoteric scribblings and elaborate schemas all but indecipherable save by the most learned. Then he had interrupted the Final Recitation, unwittingly binding himself to that ageless artifact and quite literally losing everything short of his life.

Attempts to recreate his spellbook, for lack of a better term, failed repeatedly. The notations were meaningless, even when their form had crystal clarity in his mind. Brokk had tried to examine scrolls and tomes containing magical knowledge, only to find even that avenue closed off to him. He had no difficulty in converting the cipher, but the fact that he was unable to make use of his own system stymied him completely. It had been several months later, during one of his many inspections of the tablet, that he suddenly understood the nature of one of the inscribed spells.

It was a minor ritual, designed to strip away the barriers of language for scant minutes, but to Brokk it may as well have been intended to call upon the might of Khuldul himself. He threw himself into further study, applying his crude understanding of the tablet to the magical notations he knew were correct, but from which he could draw no power. As the days and weeks passed by, Brokk became more adept at unlocking the meaning of the spells, slowly coming to the conclusion that he had somehow ended up substituting his own memory of magical texts and diagrams for the physical copy of them previously required.

He was effectively using the tablet as a mnemonic totem, letting him recall even the most complicated of incantations and rituals with perfect efficiency. It meant an end to his half-life, surviving off scraps earned from his few innate talents. It meant an end to scribing puerile messages for petty baronets, and translating vacuous phrases into ancient languages to be inked on prideful crests, and sorting archived letters and missives for corrupt courts, and tutoring etiquette and protocol to bastards - many of whom were, utterly so - of nobility.

Brokk wondered how long he would have had the strength to keep on like that, had he not had that revelation. He suspected he would have found far more strength than was reasonable. His life would not have been cut short so easily. In all likelihood, the misery of being a wizard without magic was exactly the sort of punishment he deserved for his arrogance. That it lasted so short a time was miraculous, he thought, and proof enough that the gods were possessed of mercy and cruelty in great measure.

He brought himself back to reality as the last spells flowed into his mind. There were fewer of them than there ought to be, his capacities savaged by whatever mysterious power was leeching the arcane from Elder Daven. He had tried to explain the concept before, but it seemed as though only those who wielded magic could truly understand some of what that entailed. For Brokk, however, it was enough that the severity of the situation was understood by his friends.

He would guide them as best he could. The rest would be up to steel and courage.







 

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