Mists of Daven, Part III - Page 3 - Myth-Weavers

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Mists of Daven, Part III

   
Well, namedropping was a necessity at some point. I just found a lovely opportunity to fire off two at the same time. Glad you liked it.

After some time, the hammering stopped and a more subdued conversation was audible through the heavily battered door. It was not the only thing that had suffered from raw attrition. Aidan's breath came in short, juddering bursts; and Karl had given up fighting the uncontrollable shaking of his hands. Almost anyone else would have already been crippled with exhaustion, but sheer mulishness was carrying the pair now.

From beyond their prison, a commanding voice sounded: "Trespassers! I who speak now am he who you came to murder. Though rightly I should let you be dragged from that hole like rats, your tenacity and courage permit you a more noble death. I, the baron Wilhelm Siegfried, offer you this ultimatum. Come forth and duel me with honour, or perish as vermin do. Come forth, von Lanburg, disrespect your station no longer. Come forth, Aodhaen, knight of mercy and foolishness."

Even so wearied and confused by this turn of events, Karl spotted Aidan's eyes lighting up with sudden understanding, literally so, as a faint glow in their depths rose up to the surface. The half-elf wore a cold expression, a thing only describable as an unsmile on his face, that the hardened Driddaren shivered to see.

Before he could stop the man, Aidan threw open the door and strode out. Karl froze, expecting to hear death strike at once, but there was only silence. Bewildered, he followed Aidan out, though what he saw still made no sense to him. The guards that had had them trapped, that had been baying for their blood not a minute earlier, had been pulled back. A tall, dark-faced replacement stood in waiting for them, grotesquely resplendent in finery worth a year's food to any Davenian farmer. A cruel confidence was etched on his features and Karl knew that this was indeed none other than the Baron Wilhelm Siegfried himself.

What little remained of Karl's courage began to slip away from him. Aidan, however, positively bubbled with eagerness. To Karl's astonishment, the paladin paid no attention to any save the baron, even as he passed between the ranks of the guards, exposed to a killing blow from either side that never came.

"These are not the weapons we came to kill you with," Aidan stated baldly, throwing down the sword he had taken. "Our last request, should you prove our better, is that we face you with those we walked into this house with."

The baron Siegfried nodded as though this was entirely reasonable. He snapped his fingers and immediately one of his men brought forward Aidan's warhammer, and another returned Karl's own Driddaren sword and shield, emblazoned with the heraldry of the royal hippogriff - though such a creature had not been seen in Daven, never mind ridden by a King's Champion, for at least eight hundred years.

"It is only proper for a duelist to die with his own blade, or hammer, in his hand," the treacherous nobleman commented lightly, the absence of fear in his voice unsettling Karl enormously. "Aodhaen, your good fortune has run its course and I curse you. Come, knight, break against me as water upon rock."

Aidan still had his terrible smile on. He took a step forward, noting the complete lack of concern that Siegfried still exhibited, then swung the warhammer once, twice, thrice. Each blow connected perfectly, but his foe barely swayed. He showed no hint of pain, and Karl knew some protective sorcery was at work. This was not a fight they could win. Still, his honour demanded he die carrying out his duty as best he was able.

Clearly getting nowhere, Aidan stepped back, and Karl took his place. With lightning speed and precision, he stabbed at the baron, each time his sword clearly piercing the flesh and emerging unbloodied. Dismayed, he dropped his shield and brought down his sword in a mighty two-handed strike that, to all intents and purposes, merely bounced off the apparently impervious Siegfried.

This was hopeless.

*****

Once, long ago, Karl had heard an expression that had traveled all the way, so it was claimed, from the mystical realm of Yrrkune, beyond even the borders of the dreaded Wintervale. 'A single grain can tip the scale', was how it had been translated to him. He had understood it to mean that sometimes, the greatest of changes can be brought about by the slightest of things. He had understood it correctly.

The grain here was a question that Aidan asked at this moment: "What number was shown by the throw of the dice, baron?" and Karl saw Siegfried's complacence disappear in an instant. Realization struck loyal Driddaren and treasonous baron at the same moment. Karl, his reflexes and training the superior, moved the quicker. This time, his attack drew blood, far more than it ought for a wound that had been meant as relatively shallow. Siegfried wailed in shock and pain, and began to scrabble to draw his sword to defend himself.

Having seen the proof of his adversary's vulnerability, Karl von Lanburg, here the representative of King Godric, honourably waited until the baron was properly armed. Only then did he close in, triumph blazing in his eyes and adding righteous power to his every strike. Around him, bewildered guards tried to decide whether to aid their lord or flee. The first few of the boldest were immediately subjected to a single pulverising blow from Aidan, and the rest chose discretion.

Knocked down by their panicked flight, Hils Rourke struggled to his feet, fully intending to join them. He managed all of two steps before a silver agony gripped his heels, sending him to the floor again. Squealing in terror, he turned on his back and saw his death, a grim-faced halfling woman whose daggers were painted with his blood. Right before they sank into his eyes, however, the blades divested him of the absurd hat he wore, along with its concealing magics, revealing him as the orc-blooded wretch he truly was.

For Wilhelm Siegfried, this was the last straw and he shrieked rabid incoherencies at the three who had brought him low, his already-precarious sanity tipped over the edge by the rapidity and totality of his defeat. Disgusted, the names of the betrayed Driddaren posted to Arden on his lips, Karl von Lanburg drove his blade into the traitor's chest. Ribs splintered under the force of the blow and a crimson spray leaped into the air.

And with that, it was over.

As they emerged into the fresh day, Karl turned to Aidan and asked a question of his own: "What throw of what dice did you mean back there?"

The half-elf looked at him, an inscrutable half-smile now dancing on his lips, then nodded to Isolde, who gave the answer: "The throw of Bucca's Dice, my friend. A con worthy of the Tunnel King Himself."

Still confused, Karl rubbed the back of his neck and Isolde took pity on him. "When we get back, I'll explain everything."




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This is the penultimate, or pre-penultimate, installment I think. The last one/two, rounding off the entirety of the "Mists of Daven", will be along by Sunday. A few important edits and corrections are still needed.

As usual it was very compelling. But I think I'm confused by how they managed to penetrate the magical shield.

The end of "Mists"? Nooo! Actually I am looking forward to the ending but will be sorry to see it end. It's been a really fun read.

The 'missing' explanation for the magical shield is due to it being in the next part, along with exposition for Karl/readers as to the nature of the plan that Isolde basically improvised and how Aidan was clued into it. I would have included it in this portion, but I ran out of energy halfway through the editing process and went to bed itself. Had to go to work the next day after all...

Okay, that makes sense. Looking forward to it.

The fleeing guards of the baron spread word of their master's death, and of his ambitions - though with a few details of which they were ignorant, such as the artifacts of undeath hidden across Daven, being kept out of things - but to Aidan's relief, the people of Arden were not hurled into depression or despair at the news. Apparently, the harsh lives Davenians had to endure had given them a practicality and a resilience beyond the norm for common folk. To them, reports of their local hero being a scheming traitor only out for himself just made them shrug and claim the events as unfortunate, but typical of their lot in life.

Somewhat less to his relief, Karl von Lanburg insisted on recording the actualities so that he could report on them accurately when he returned to Elder Daven. This would mean learning what Isolde had been thinking when she devised the plan to topple Siegfried, and require plenty of explanation from the others as to exactly why they went along with its madness. Aidan, correctly, predicted this would not go down well.

"You had no plan?" Karl exclaimed at the revelation, stupefied and not a little appalled. "You had us walk in there with no plan except 'you two go and fight thirty armed soldiers'? And you all knew and understood this?"

The four friends nodded in unison, and the Driddaren clutched his head in pained disbelief, spluttering, "You, you! But how? The baron came to us, so confident. Then everything was so strange. You just walked out to meet him, Aidan. Then we couldn't hurt him until you said something else. I saw it in his eyes, when he realised he was vulnerable again. But I...you said it was a dice throw, but I don't understand. What sort of dice have anything to do with combat?"

It was Aidan who spoke first, a little shamefaced. "You heard how the baron addressed me? He called me 'Aodhaen'. That is my birth name, in my native Rhunsdhain. 'Aidan' is merely its translation into Kingdom Common. He knew to call me that because Isolde told him. It was a message from her to me. That, once again, she stole back Bucca's Dice from me. I WILL find a way to stop you from doing that."

Karl's expression went utterly blank, purest incomprehension overriding everything else. Isolde, helpfully, produced an ordinary-looking pair of dice and held them out for inspection. When this failed to enlighten the man, she made as if to roll them on the table, and Aidan snatched them from her palm before they could fall, his anger and worry evident.

"We will just take them back again some other time," the halfling said, giggling at Aidan's expression. "Those belong to my people. Hold them for a day or a year or a millennium, but they will see Westdelving."

To Karl, she finally gave the answer he wanted: "Those dice were created by one of our gods, Bucca, hence the name. To cut a long story short, he threw them away for reasons, then they turned up again among mortals. Their magic is all but useless to most races, but to a hositan, they may - or they may not - be very powerful."

"And completely random!" Aidan interrupted. "The only certainty with them is that trying to control their outcome backfires on you and only you. Still at random times and in random ways, because apparently Bucca decided to make them out of raw chaos-stuff."

Isolde smiled broadly. "So I used their only rule to cheat their only rule. I'm hositan. I'm a rogue. Bucca would approve. I tried to call upon their magic to make myself resistant to harm. The baron was nearby when I did that, so because I was technically his enemy, the dice made him practically invulnerable. Of course, then I got him to go away and fight you instead of me, until the protection wore off and doubtless made him more susceptible to injury. I'm guessing on the eighth hit? I thought so. I rolled a seven on the dice, you see. Makes perfect sense."

There was a half-derisive, half-admiring snort of laughter from Embla. She clearly considered the whole thing to be utterly nonsensical, but as it had produced a good result, the so-called plan of having no plan was a good one. She could tell by Aidan's face that he did not approve, but then, he wouldn't. It was harder to tell what Karl thought of this. She guessed he was still trying to work it out and failing. One question did occur to him, however.

"How, by all the gods, did such magic come into your hands out of all possible ones?"

Isolde remembered that time well. Often she wished she didn't. But for Karl, she merely shrugged and said, "Just lucky I guess."





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Some slight data corruption means I need to rewrite the final Interlude that was meant to accompany this entry. I should have it done tonight. The story entire will receive its final entry tomorrow, and I'll send off its compilation to you at the same time Farland.

Hmmm very interesting.... almost as if you’re laying the groundwork for the next story with this party.

LAST INTERLUDE

It was a very different Isolde who left Kelerak from the one who had entered it. The horrible fate of Baldrin, the enemy she had made in the torture-adept Koorlsh by not sharing it, the dark truth about the Zelish underworld of which she was a part - and, a glorious reprieve from the bleakness, the lunatic clarity of the Silver Duke and his gift to her - these had all combined to force a new world-view.

Two months after her escape back to Dragonspur, she crossed the borders into Zeland once more. She carried with her a number of trophies recently acquired, to prove how some of the secret lines of communication between occupied east and liberated west had finally been severed.

It had been a brutal and chaotic expunging of the hidden evil there. Isolde had never believed herself cut out to be a death stalker, trained in the art of assassination rather than thievery, but her guerrilla war had disproved that notion. She first replaced the halfling messengers, repaying their fall to true evil with blood - thieves avaricious and grasping they might all be, but to whore their talents out to the servants of the Vale was inexcusable.

Then she turned her blades onto the drow overseers whose orders came up from Orland. Mingling business with pleasure was always a dangerous proposition, but Isolde did not care. One by one, the corrupted elves fell before her, drawing out the Kelerite traitors who worked with them. Most of these she spared her tender mercies. There was one man she trusted still, a spymaster for the Sons of Moonlight, to whom she gave their names instead. Their public executions would do much to bolster the faction's legitimacy, and that of their sponsor-founder Lord Felmund, in the turbulent political arena of Kelerak.

Despite all her successes, one thing continued to worry her. The ducal signet ring of the Eaglesreach, the genuine one, was still in her possession. It had to be, since she had managed to confirm Koorlsh's claim that it had been cursed to inflict madness. Isolde suspected a part of the curse was working on her, dissuading her from ridding herself of it, tempting her to wear it. Yet to discard it, or try to destroy it, or give it to another for safekeeping, were thoughts that she avoided, for no reason that she could identify. The ring wanted to be worn and used, and she wanted the same.

One option had presented itself to her, but she needed to back in Zeland for that. Specifically, she needed to be back in the good graces of Papa Keller, Baldrin's uncle and guildmaster of the Association's holdings in north-western Zeland. This was part of the reason why she was collecting trophies of her victories.

Presenting these to Papa Keller (actual name Franca Gregora Torrezzi) would let him claim credit for ridding the guild of dangerous partners, and make her offering of tribute to him less suspicious. A standard collection of coins, gems and other such pretties would form the majority of this offering. But, and this was crucial, the finest example of ringwear needed to be the signet ring of the Silver Duke.

*****

Papa Keller was one of those hositan who truly lived up to the old saying 'he is a man with a belly', meaning both figurative power and courage, and literal enormous amounts of fat, as if the two things were inextricably linked. In the occupied territories, for a hositan to have both in equal measure was nearly unheard-of. It did wondrous things for his reputation and the respect he was given.

But, he had a problem. His ears were good and they told him of mutterings in the ranks. Too many murders were happening, they said. The secret police were not staying bribed as they used to be. His favoured, but idiotic, nephew disappears into Kelerak, bragging about a secret mission he was entrusted with. Finally, the money was not coming in as much as it used to.

For Papa Keller, this rumbling discontent was an offense. It suggested to the other guildmasters that he could not keep order in his own house. It was early days yet, so he could root out the cause and obliterate it before it became an embarrassment. He knew that Panta Amero Ballussia in particular would be happy to seem him discredited - it was his only daughter, after all, that had accompanied Baldrin to Kelerak and disappeared along with him.

And as Panta was also agrosso pancchio, a man with a belly, and worse still, one who was not part of the Association, he would be a terrible opponent to face if Papa Keller found himself on the defensive for once. That he could command so much respect as little more than a freelancer was, to put it bluntly, terrifying to the hardened crime boss. Simply killing him was out of the question, as he had actually married into the Association and was thus protected by more than just their rules. Even genuine accidents were things to be worried about.

Everyone recalled the famous bridal speech at their wedding. It was traditional for a hositan bride to make the same vapid promises as her husband, to love and serve and protect each other, yet for all the weddings he had been to, Papa Keller had never before heard and believed them. Part of it was the cold certainty in every word. Part of it was knowing just what the Mamacita, what Droggo Marie Ballussia nee Zalucchio would do, slowly and with great pleasure, to any who crossed her.

I am a superstitious woman. A ridiculous failing, but there it is. I know many people do not wish our marriage well, yet I forgive them that. But should some terrible misfortune befall us, my superstition would have me think it was the result of the ill will some of you here might bear towards us.

Certain guests had paled, Papa Keller among them. He had been one of the most vocal in opposition to the marriage. It would be bad for business, he had argued. Several others had agreed with him, but it had done no good. They knew now why, despite this, they had still been invited - to hear this warning of the Mamacita. Then she had continued.

Should he be stabbed by a goblin, or bludgeoned by a troll, I will blame your disdain for our union. Should a lightning bolt from the gods strike him dead, or the Hells devour him on a whim, I will blame your disapproval. And that ill will, that misfortune, I shall not forgive.

All this, however, paled into insignificance next to certain questions coming up from Orland. His contacts there were perturbed by the breakdown in communication with their fellows in Kelerak. Since the letters and missives between the two were part of Papa Keller's jurisdiction, any fault for a breakdown lay squarely on his shoulders. It was a weight he did not appreciate, since early rumours from Kelerak suggested either Baldrin or Isolde were involved - and then Isolde herself had reappeared with proof that it had been.

Before a horrified audience, she had piled her trophies - drow ears, hositan tattoos, human fingers; to name but the most grisly - and announced the extermination of a threat to the Association. Papa Keller had seen immediately that the only way to salvage this was to have evidence manufactured to support her claim, enabling him to claim credit for this bold initiative.

Dealing with the angered Orlanders, however, was a major preoccupation of his thoughts now. Even if they believed the proof, their own drow overseers would demand bloody retribution for their dead kin. The obvious solution was to sacrifice the Ballussias for this. Aside from anything else, it would provide Papa Keller with the satisfaction of having finally won one over Droggo and Panta, and silence the dissenters in his ranks. The other guildmasters would appreciate his cunning and respect him all the more for it. All he needed now was a convenient excuse to present the Orlanders with his enemies.

As he considered the details, he idly toyed with the fancy ring that had been among the tribute Isolde offered - a recompense, she said, for causing him worry with her absence; and serving also as weregeld, payment in blood and gold, from those who butchered his beloved nephew.

It was a pretty thing. Silver, with a copper inlay and set with tiny jade stones. Probably belonged to a nobleman's child, as it fitted on his finger perfectly. At first he had thought it too large for him, but that was clearly a mistake. Rings did not shrink down to suit their wearer, after all! That was exactly the sort of magical nonsense he despised in the tales that were such popular fare these days.

Somehow it was reassuring to wear it. Comforting. Things would work out. There was no need to panic. No need at all. Just needed to have the Ballussias killed. A job six thousand years overdue. Sloppy work. He would not have allowed such a thing in his outfit. It was good to be reminded of his duties.

The cursed signet ring of the Silver Duke began its work.

*****

What had been intended to befall Kelerak instead became the doom of the Association. Unjustified beatings and executions became commonplace under Papa Keller, handed out for the slightest of infractions. His men deserted in droves, encouraging him to press those of other guildmasters into his service. They fought to retrieve their soldiers and punish the increasingly deranged Papa Keller for his presumption.

As each devoted more and more of their resources to this task, their power was weakened and the vultures that were their peers began to circle. One would descend and begin to feed, in doing so making themselves vulnerable for a time. Alliances of convenience were formed and discarded overnight as the guildmasters turned on each other, tasting ultimate control of the Association.

Zeland's underworld was thrown into confusion and bloodshed. From Orland, drow moved in to seek vengeance for their failed designs for Kelerak. They were indiscriminate. Already dying from self-inflicted wounds, the Association fought back with all it had left. It did nothing but make their slaughter more entertaining to the drow. Papa Keller was one of the few to survive, though this was not to his liking: he was taken alive, and back to Orland, never to be heard of again.

The purge was completed inside of a month. Being wise enough not to attempt to stretch themselves too thin, the drow established puppets in Zeland to replace the Association. Being so predictable as to do this, they failed to notice their 'puppets' were the survivors of the purge, those who had withdrawn from the conflict entirely and still had much of their old strength.

Among them were the Ballussias and the families most trusted by them, who Isolde had warned of her plan. They had wisely chosen to accept the small losses of not resisting the infighting rather than the total destruction of joining in with it. Isolde herself had stirred up more hate between the Zelish and Orlander factions, leaking information to both sides that only increased the body count and animosity. Whenever possible, she focused on the drow, since even if she did so exclusively they would still survive the war.

It was during this sleepless time, after a raid on one of their 'safe' houses, that Isolde retrieved a cache of magical items that the drow had themselves liberated from some Association vault. Most of these were of little account. A few wands and potions, a peculiar ruby necklace she later sold to a Havenish smuggler, daggers and clubs, and suchlike. One item, however, had no doubt mystified the drow as to why it had been included in the vault: a pair of dice, utterly ordinary in every way.

Isolde, as every halfling before her, knew otherwise the moment her fingers brushed their surface. Their magic was potent and subtle, when it so pleased them, and most of it would be hidden from all save a hositan in any case. Understanding of what they were grew in the garden of her mind like a weed.

Bucca's Dice had lain dormant for too long and they begged to be used again, just once, surely that would not be so terrible? Isolde knew better than to give in to the compulsion of rolling them in any serious capacity. Instead, she played with them as she might any other pair of dice. They were not cursed, exactly, not in the same way as the Silver Duke's signet ring - but they were very insistent that being rolled was what they were supposed to do. So long as that was happening on a regular basis, the negative effects of their magic was kept to a remarkable minimum.

It would not be for many months yet, after Isolde met a half-elven paladin and an Erunian warrior looking for help with a warlock coven below Mavarra, that any other knew of the rediscovery of Bucca's Dice. At which point, after the flames were put out and a very confused sheep turned back into an annoyed innkeeper, the very drunk Isolde was in no condition to keep Aidan from confiscating them.

Of course, she was still one of the finest thieves left alive in all Zeland. Retrieving them every so often was not difficult.



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Yes, the oppressed Zelish hositan are being modeled on the Mafia. What's your point?

And your very slow building of Isolde to one of— if not the main character comes to fruition! Excellent.

At the same time as Aidan and Karl were besieged, and Isolde was stuffing her face, it suddenly became Embla's duty to reorient Brokk away from murder. Neither had even considered the possibility that it would be Brokk, studious and calm, whose composure would break first. It had been a little thing - but one of dozens, as Brokk later tried to justify to himself - that had finally tipped him over the edge, to lose his patience with the derro Ambrick.

Their day had started no differently to any other of the last eleven. Embla woke first and immediately began to exercise, straining her muscles to their fullest. By the time Brokk was up and ready to go, she looked half as large again, sweat-drenched and reeking. At any other time, she would use a scraper to clean herself off, but a test from the previous week had proven that Ambrick became even more malleable if she did not.

After a quick breakfast, the pair descended into the mines and met with Ambrick. He would hand over his mostly-incomprehensible notes from his night musings to Brokk for examination, then proceed to gawp at Embla without shame. For her part, she would continue to stretch and pose as though on gladiatorial display, though it was really for his lust.

Then the real work would begin. Subtle and overt magics both were deployed against the strange device, seeking out its vulnerabilities, testing its defenses. As the only true wizard present, Brokk supplied most of the spells, with Ambrick adding only a few here and there - apparently, the twisted natures of the derro extended even to how they used the same magic as other races, making it difficult to qualify exactly what sort of spellcaster he was.

From time to time, they would take a break to discuss their findings and theories. Ambrick had taken to sitting on Embla's lap during these, one hand reaching across his entire head to massage his temples, a sight that Brokk found increasingly uncomfortable with each new day.

On this particular day when everything nearly fell apart, Ambrick had been gesturing wildly while trying to detail one of his ideas. After one especially violent gesticulation, he began to slide from his seat and scrabbled for a handhold. His grubby fingers closed on Embla's breast and for a moment, Brokk thought he saw in her eyes the terrifying berserker madness that had carried them through many a desperate battle.

It was partly his fear of this, and partly his own outrage, that made him leap to his feet and seize Ambrick by the hair. With a burst of force, he hurled the derro fully to the ground, cracking his head again the stones. Brokk's eyes blazed with eldritch power, magic boiling in his soul as he transformed the spells he had already prepared into the one his hatred desired.

The words of a particularly black curse rose to his lips, an incantation he had never believed he would be willing to speak - and which, had he been thinking clearly, he would have recalled that he lacked the power and knowledge to cast. Brokk could feel a necromantic force surging into him, a bolstering of his not-inconsiderable magical ability, but thought nothing of it, all his focus consumed by loathing.

As he spoke the final syllables, a pressure fell across his mouth and chest, stopping both speech and breath. He fought to complete the spell, struggled to spit out the curse and see the vile derro wither into dust, but it was no use. Whatever force had hold of him was simply too strong. The magic he had invoked ebbed away, like a falling tide, and as it did so, Brokk's mind cleared.

He relaxed and the pressure on him lifted as Embla released her iron grip. The dwarf took a deep breath. Shaking, he returned to his chair and sat down. Embla watched him carefully, making sure he was not going to faint or anything else equally stupid, and then moved over to Ambrick.

In a confidential, motherly tone, she spoke nonsense to the dazed and bleeding derro, not all of it in her own language. At one point, the words 'jealous' and 'petty-dwarf' floated past Brokk, and even in his own shock, he realised that Embla was trying - and more incredibly still, succeeding - in turning this to their advantage.

In Ambrick's madness, he would see this as confirmation that Embla was interested in him, enough to defend him even against her friends and allies. What had nearly been a disaster was turning out to be a godsend!

But Brokk had a new question he needed answering. As Embla comforted Ambrick, he looked over suspiciously at the strange construct they were trying to understand. Its limbs seemed to be drooping a little, as if tired or drained of energy. Flecks of rust, where none had been before, were visible along the iron bindings.

The simplest explanation, so Brokk had always been taught, was usually the correct one. Here, the simplest explanation was that the flow of magical energy had been reversed. Whereas the device normally stole magical energy to keep itself powered, able to rebuild destroyed undead and send them out into the world again, for a moment it had been the victim of theft.

And it had been Brokk who had stolen from it.

*****

Ambrick chittered, laughing at the suggestion when it was made to him. Too simple an explanation, he had said, so simple only a simple mind could have thought it. What a ridiculous weakness such a magnificence to have, in any case. If all that it took to disable the work of necromantic genius was a flash of jealousy, all such achievements would collapse on themselves the moment their creator's rivals heard of them!

Brokk ignored the spurious counter-argument. The insult it contained was far too petty to anger him in any case. Especially now! The truth was so close, so very close, that the wizard could almost taste it. For the first time since he had learned the extent of the Dark Occupation, of the atrocities it had visited upon its conquests, Brokk felt as though a decisive blow could be struck against it.

True, three nations had already been liberated, technically speaking. But there was so much more work to be done. Kale was slipping into pre-feudalism, where even a royal authority held no sway over local nobility. Kelerak was perpetually on the verge of civil war. Daven was being bled dry, its people fleeing or being devoured by the unending legions of the walking dead. And just over the borders, the forces of the Wintervale prepared to retake their lost territories.

Yet here they were. They were on the verge of a discovery that would end the unassailable hegemony of the undead in Daven. Living soldiers, less easily replaceable, would need to be sent to reclaim the country for the Wintervale. It might do no more than delay the inevitable for a few years, a decade at most. But a few hours was a long time in war. A few years? Who knew what might appear to turn the tide in that time?

There was much that still needed to be done. Tests and experiments aplenty, under as many conditions as possible. Brokk found the thought of all the necessary work to be invigorating. He also found himself thinking that Ambrick would be of increasingly little help.

The dwarf made himself a promise, however. As long as Embla was willing to put up with Ambrick, he would not make a move against the despicable derro. Even the least bit of assistance would be welcome. And in due course, Brokk could kill the foul creature once its usefulness was at an end, with a clear conscience.

He might even amuse himself by presenting Ambrick's corpse as the last to be dissembled by the necrotic device. Using evil to destroy evil was not a thing that he normally advocated. But all things considered, it felt sufficiently like poetic justice to be worth it.

*****

As he had expected, Isolde approved of his idea. She had heard of what happened from Embla, and had approached Brokk later that night - rightly suspicious that he had not fully let go of it. The two had spoken for a while and agreed that Ambrick could not be allowed to live, no matter how helpful he had been thus far to their cause. He was a derro, after all, and leaving such a creature to wander Daven, or beyond, with what he knew was unacceptable.

Aidan would doubtless argue against it, as would the von Lanburgs, younger and elder alike. For such as they, honour still trumped reason more often than not. Isolde thought it likely that Embla would be eager to deal the killing blow herself, but would be happy with Ambrick's death no matter how it happened. She thought this, Brokk quickly learned, because she had asked Embla that question before coming to speak with him.

From the next day, their routine carried on much as it had before, with little in the way of change. Embla woke early to prepare her image for Ambrick, then she and Brokk went to work on him. Karl von Lanburg, in his official capacity as a Driddaren officer, scoured Arden's militia for good recruits and finding none that met his standards.

Aidan and Isolde accompanied him, the latter no longer needing to spy on the baron's holdings, offering combat training to those who had nearly satisfied Karl's minimum expectations. Isolde had to be dissuaded from charging for this service, but with that aside, the encounters went well, and the hopeful militiamen were assured that there would be regular visits from Elder Daven to check on their improvement.

The familiarity of the routine was comforting, in its own way, a calming time especially for the four friends who had come out of Mavarra and survived the Ruin Woods. They had crossed entire countries in the last year, fought terrible opponents and come closer to dying several times than ever they had before, either together or separately.

They would have been less relaxed had they known of the hate-filled eyes watching them, peering across the miles through smoked glass and clouded water.

*****

Naxartes had ordered they move from Laub, which was far too provincial for his tastes, and cross the Misty Lake to New Daven. It was a more suitable location for a man of his grandeur and ability, though still barely sufficient. The warlock dispatched the gnome first, to prepare for his coming, then Imp too had been sent out to find acceptable servants.

Between the two of them, they had managed to procure an adequate house. It was not the palatial estate his talents deserved, but that would come in time and with patience. Naxartes had developed a very thick skin, after all, from living in the squalid tents of the Circle of Twelve Moons for so long. His former coven had been such pitiable wretches.

They could not withstand even such a brutish ambush as had been inflicted on them by the druid Cawlis and his minions, who now paraded themselves about Arden as though they deserved life! Now his former competition was no more than jellied filth coating the pair of gulogut that had been unleashed on them.

No such a fate for Naxartes! He cursed the incompetence of his former coven, that they had allowed such cumbersome monstrosities to attack without warning. Had they not failed Naxartes, had he been alerted to the attack, things would have gone very differently. With but a word, he might have suborned the beasts to his own relentless, indomitable will. Then well might the coven masters tremble before him, acknowledging at last his mastery over their own.

As he thought of this, the warlock suddenly realised just why he had not been warned of the gulogut. It had been no accident, no ordinary failing. Of course, his so-called superiors would have been eager to see him removed as a threat. They must have ordered the guards not to sound the alarm, in the hope that Naxartes would be killed at once. How foolish of them!

True, he had been trampled beneath them, nearly crushed as the beasts thundered over his tent into the beating heart of the coven, but he had survived, being far too mighty for such an ignominious demise. Instead of his assassination, the coven leaders had assured only their own doom. Naxartes would have had them slain for this treachery, of course, had the gulogut not done this for him.

Imp had crawled to him then, he recalled, proving its devotion to him. It was, Naxartes grudgingly admitted, a decent tool at present. Even after the collapse of his plans in Elder Daven - again, due to those same accursed fools he now scryed upon strutting about in Arden - Imp had been able to retrieve another to serve him. Granted, the gnome was a primitive and ignorant runt, but blindly loyal and obedient. It had even spoken up in support of him during the communion with Belphegor...

Actually, that was a suspicious boldness. Naxartes was all in favour of sacrificial stupidity, when it was for his benefit of course, but to address a patron devil, and one of such potential, in that way suggested a hidden strength that ought not have been revealed. It might have been a lapse in judgement from an enemy of his trying to catch him off guard. It might also have been no more than. He would keep watch on the gnome and pass judgement later.

It would not be troublesome to replace it, after all. New Daven was swarming with suitably contemptible vermin that could be turned to his purposes. A number of the gutter runners here had already begun to work for him, though they knew it not. The items they had procured were crude, but sufficient for now. Armed with scrying crystal and mirrored pool, Naxartes could keep an eye on his nemeses and they, poor fools, would not know of it until his vengeance fell upon them!

He was a little concerned by the blind spot his scrying kept running into, preventing his sight from falling on them whilst in the abandoned mine, but it would not matter in the end. Whatever protection they had established there, no doubt out of some feeble paranoia, would be insufficient to shield them from his wrath.

*****

In the sixth week of their stay in Arden, Brokk stopped his research early. For nearly a month, he and Ambrick had effectively been working apart, only colluding with each other when there was no other choice. In the end, it had perhaps delayed the final discovery by a couple of weeks. All that remained now was to guarantee success by testing his hypothesis.

The dwarf gathered up his notes unhurriedly, gave Embla a significant look and walked out of the chamber. He heard Ambrick make a questioning noise, only for it to die away as Embla stepped up her game of keeping him distracted. The derro had grown increasingly bold with her, and she had needed to resort to ever more elaborate schemes to keep him off her - all of which, Brokk had little doubt, were being supplied by Isolde's deviousness. The current favourite was an ostensibly traditional dance of her people which bore a curious resemblance to that of a Zelish prostitute.

He had made the mistake of commenting on this one night, only for Aidan to start querying him on exactly how he would know what such a dance would look like. It had taken a significant amount of time and effort to persuade the paladin that Brokk was familiar with the sight due to his time as a tutor for the rich and spoiled brats of Zelish and Orlander nobility, rather than due to personal experience.

The truth of this notwithstanding, what really mattered was that it worked. Ambrick the Savant, for all his mad genius, was hopelessly enraptured with Embla. He had given Brook practically no resistance to the contents of his mind, and once the dwarf had finished clearing up the problems with said contents, his work had progressed ever more swiftly.

At last, Brokk was convinced he had uncovered the fatal weakness present in the necrotic devices. It was, as he had suspected a month earlier, entirely down to the exchange system by which they maintained themselves. In being open to absorb magic from whatever spellcaster happened to be within range, in Arden this being Brokk and Ambrick, they would also be open to having their own stores of magic drawn out of them.

Brokk had managed this purely by accident, just by trying to convert the various spells immediately available to him into one of pure destruction - a feat that only a very few wizards were capable of, and which taxed even him greatly. In this case, Some fading, relic connection to the magic stolen from him yet remained as he attempted this conversion, letting him unknowingly draw from the reserves held in the device, uncaring as to whether the stolen magic had originally been his or another's.

Despite Ambrick dismissing the possibility outright, Brokk had changed his tack, working on the assumption that by emptying the stolen magical reserves, the device would become unpowered - and vulnerable even to mundane tools, unable to defend itself in any way from annihilation. The multiple attempts made to destroy its counterpart below Elder Daven had proven that it was capable of casting spells, in a sense, and of animating in order to slay whatever threatened it.

What he needed for them to do now, he explained after having presented his findings to the others, was for them to set an ambush that night. In simple terms, whilst the device drained magic from him, Brokk would be able to do exactly the same, if it was distracted by a threat - such as, for example, a paladin of Heshtail and a captain of the Driddaren trying to dismantle it.

Ambrick, he continued, would be of no help. He might even, Brokk suggested, be a danger to this plan. After all, had not the late traitor baron hoped to use him to bring the necrotic devices under control? The others took his point at once. Only Isolde knew this to be Brokk's way of preventing either Aidan or Karl from interfering when the time came to kill Ambrick, making it easier for them to side against him if they thought of the derro as a likely enemy.

*****

"Midnight? That's an unnecessary dramatism if ever there was one."

"You just made that word up, Isolde," Aidan sighed. "But I agree with the sentiment. Brokk, how much longer do we wait?"

"Until we are all here. Don't worry, she'll do her part. Unless you want to go to war without her?"

Aidan shuddered at the thought. "No, no. We'll wait for Embla to get back."

Embla had been sent to fetch Ambrick, on the basis that he would not get out of bed except for her, and even so the derro was exactly as irritable as Brokk predicted - nobody was in a particularly good mood anyway, of which the lateness of the hour could only be partially to blame. There was a heaviness in the air, a tension so think it could nearly be cut with a knife, even on the surface. Here, beneath Arden, the cloying atmosphere was worse still. At last, however, they were all gathered.

In the center of the chamber, waiting patiently, the necrotic artifact did not so much as stir whilst it went about its thievery. Dwarf and derro both grimaced, feeling their magic slip from them to feed the device. The latter seemed especially upset, for normally he would be asleep and unable to feel the loss. Like all the dark folk, it seemed, Ambrick had no problem with theft except when it came to losing something of his own.

For the next few minutes, Brokk ignored the ever-more annoyed questions the derro leveled at him, until at last, he deemed the parasitic connection strong enough to put his plan into action. His eyes met Isolde's, and she nodded almost imperceptibly back, hands hovering near her dagger hilts, Ambrick's exposed back a perfect target. More openly, he turned to face Aidan and held out an inviting hand.

"Will you join me, my friend, in ridding this world of some of its evil?"

Ambrick started, finally understanding the nature of the gathering, as Aidan hefted his warhammer, a grim and eager smile on his face. In response to this, the device began to move as well, the metallic 'branches' around its central trunk twisting to face Aidan. At the tip of each, many-jointed fingers began to lash in a frenzy, thirsting for the half-elf.

It hesitated for a moment when Karl and Embla readied their weapons also, but only to decide how to divide its attentions between the three. Even had it been unable to fight back, there was very little chance of them doing any damage to the construct with unenchanted weaponry. But the instructions impressed upon the device during its creation did not permit for allowing such a risk.

The three warriors began their dance, darting forward and back, in and out of reach of the deadly branches that sought to rip and rend. For all that they were fighting defensively, for all their skill, it was still barely enough. Agonies raced up Karl's arm, knowing his bones would break before his shield did; whilst Aidan trusted his armour to guard his body, instead warding off strikes to his eyes and throat, relatively unprotected. Embla, meanwhile, seemed to be singing, exultant cries spilling from her as much as her blood.

Then, exactly as Brokk had hoped, Ambrick tried to intervene. Screeching wildly, the derro lunged forward, calling upon his foul magic and fouler gods to aid him. Isolde did not move, waiting for the agreed-upon signal, even as bubbling wisps of corrosion and pain began to manifest in Ambrick's hands. Then, suddenly, they vanished, blinking out of existence as rapidly as they had appeared.

Ambrick fell silent for a moment, looking at his hands first in bewilderment. Then fury took over and he bit at them until they bled. Having punished his hands enough, he invoked the spell again, howling with maniacal glee as the power grew, ready to be unleashed - and the spell failed again, exactly as before. This time, however, he heard the reason why, and glared over at the wizard who had nullified his magic.

"Care to try again?" Brokk laughed, enjoying the thunderstruck expression Ambrick wore. "I prepared nothing but spells to counter and dispel anything you throw at anyone."

Ambrick suddenly became very still, watching Brokk as a hawk might a mouse. Then he rushed forward, snatching up a rock and leaping into the air, prepared to crack the dwarf's skull apart. Just before the two collided, Brokk spoke a short phrase and let out a strong breath. At once, the derro was seized by a powerful gust of wind and hurled backwards. As he passed Isolde, she seized his ankles and hurled the airborne wretch towards the real target, so that he hit the trunk of the device hard.

At once, its 'branches' turned inward, seeking to destroy the thing that had apparently eluded its defenses. The derro had time enough for a single, short scream before the metal plunged into his unprotected body and began to pull him apart, completing the shattering of his mind.

"I also learned from Isolde and lied through my teeth," Brokk added coldly, watching the awful sight unfold. "Now to finish the job."

He closed his eyes and turned his thoughts to the magic within him - and to the magic that had been taken from him. It would hurt, perhaps more than anything else he had ever experienced, to achieve his goals. Brokk knew it would also be worth it and began. He knew which would be the first spell he needed to cast. This time, Embla made no attempt to stop him.

Pain wracked Brokk as he spoke the curse, and with the last syllable, Ambrick's torment ended at last. Brokk's, however, was just beginning.

*****

"Will he recover, do you think? You have known him longer than I."

"Honestly? I have no idea," Aidan confessed, and Embla and Isolde muttered agreement. "I do not know exactly what he suffered. Yes, I understand that he tapped into the artifact, casting spells ordinarily beyond him to drain it dry."

"I am guessing he spent most of that heightened magic to counter whatever spells the artifact tried to throw at him, since nobody was disintegrated or teleported into Hell or anything like that. But what that did to his soul is beyond me. I can do no more than suggest the healing touch of time."

It was not the answer Karl wanted to hear, but there was nothing he could do about that. He had the answer, after all this time, to how to destroy the necromantic devices. He knew his father would accept the cost, the terrible cost, as necessary. More lives had been spent on trying to uncover the secret than would be spent on draining them dry, leaving them weak and fragile.

In his heart, Karl von Lanburg, captain of the reformed Driddaren, knew he would sacrifice just as many to achieve the same result. Such was the unhappy duty of a leader in a war such as this. It was just a shame he had gotten to know, and respect, one of those who had to pay the cost of victory.

"So where will you go?" he asked finally, already knowing the answer.

Aidan looked over at the bed, to the recumbent heap of robes and flesh that had once been his friend, motionless and silent, even his breathing barely visible. It was a hideous thing to see and he turned away quickly.

"Wyvernia, in Kelerak," he said at last. "Brokk had mentioned he used to know people there that would be of help to us. If they are still there, maybe they can find wherever he is hiding in his mind. Bring him back out of it. It's all we have to go on right now."

"I wish you all the best then," Karl said sincerely. "If ever you return to Daven, know that you have helped to make it the nation it deserves to be. Not one plagued by the undead, by fear and treason and death. You will always be welcome in the court of the king. And as heartless as it may sound, I promise you will be paid for this. It is the least we can do as thanks."

Even Isolde was barely cheered by that.

>>>>>

EPILOGUE

It was a strange, subdued journey north and westwards. There was a space by the nightly campfire that was empty, and wrong. Though not particularly musical, Aidan often found himself humming the tune of 'Carve A Rock For Me' to replace the silence that had fallen there.

They took in turns to care for the unresponsive Brokk, swaddled in blankets on the back of a cart they had procured to transport him to Kelerak. The horse pulling it was a solid, competent yearling that refused to shy away from unexpected noises, or distant howls in the night, but fortunately had no illusions of being a charger either, for which they were all grateful.

They were three days out of Arden when Aidan finally lost his temper with them, and himself most of all. For nearly ten minutes, he swore and cursed and harangued until he was blue in the face. When he was finished, Isolde took up his diatribe, no less angered by their depressive mood, and then Embla succinctly brought the evening to a close by storming off into the night and returning with pieces of what had probably had been a wild boar.

Having vented their frustrations with life, the trio sat down by the fire and breathed deep sighs of relief. They felt immeasurably better, nearly optimistic. After all, Brokk was not actually dead and if anyone could help him, it would be those he considered good enough to correspond with on academic matters.

"And Brokk did not have low standards, either!" Aidan remembered, smiling a little. "But he was always so patient with us, no matter how often we showed our ignorance next to his. Nobody else could have solved the puzzle he was faced with."

Isolde sniffed, "I suppose he would say we have that filthy derro to thank for it all. If he hadn't been pawing over Embla, well..."

"I meant to apologise again for that," Aidan interrupted, looking over at Embla. "I know you accepted it with such good grace, but we should not have allowed it to happen at all. There were other ways to get what we needed. I cannot say how sorry I am that I took the easiest way out."

"If the destination is the same, only the witless travel the harder road," Embla replied, almost in a lecturing tone. "You are villtri, Aidan, not missa'ghed. Foolish, but not without mind. It was a right choice, but I will not have it made for me again. I am Aslaug and to use myself for what I want is part of that, but I cannot want to use myself for this choice."

Then, seeing she had not made herself clear, Embla struggled to translate her meaning for a while. "What is the word? Arpro-no, wait. App-ro-pri-ate. It is not appropriate for me. Even in pretense, it is not appropriate for me to act as I had to. That is what I want to say."

Then, with her next words, Aidan felt his jaw drop nearly far enough to hit the ground. He and Isolde promptly rounded on her, demanding an explanation that she delighted in not giving. And unnoticed in his bed in the cart, Brokk opened his eyes and blinked, wondering if he had actually heard such an absurd claim. Then he decided he had merely dreamed it, and went back into healing sleep, the faintest of smiles on his lined, but untroubled, face.

All she had said was, "I am, after all, a married woman."







 

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