Storms over Kelerak, Part I

   
Storms over Kelerak, Part I

Appropriately, when the storm finally broke, so did the horse`s nerve. With a scream, it reared and tore its reins free, blindly backing away from the monstrous wolf that snarled and gnashed its frothing jaws before them. Iron-shod hooves, strong enough to split an ogre`s skull, lashed at the air and glanced off elf-mail, sending its winded owner spinning down the incline straight into the river below. The horse fled into the dusk, heavy-laden cart bouncing behind it. The poor beast managed nearly half a mile before sharp words, spoken in a strained voice, stilled it.

Two small, pale faces peeked over the side of the cart. The first belonged to a young halfling woman whose eyes were normally firm, if not outright steely, but currently were dazed and watering. She held on for all of ten more seconds before moaning and letting the contents of her stomach fly. The second face almost looked like it belonged on a particularly elderly gnome, pale and hairless and wizened, but its hard features were uniquely dwarven.

"That teach you to ride with me?" the strange dwarf asked, and between dry heaves, the halfling shook her head. "Thought not. Gods above, that nearly did for me. No more magic today. Can`t...tired..."

With a little sigh, the dwarf`s eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed into the makeshift bed that occupied most of the cart. His companion quickly wiped her mouth, grimacing at the aftertaste, and forced her nausea down. From experience, she knew the binding spell on the horse would not last for long without being maintained, and if she wanted to avoid another wild ride across Kelerak`s least hospitable border road, she would need to start trying to calm the animal as quickly as possible.

As for her companions further south, she didn't worry in the slightest. It was only one wolf, after all. One gigantic, hunger-desperate, possibly rabid, dire wolf. On second thoughts, Isolde reflected, perhaps it was better the horse had bolted. It made sure she and poor Brokk were completely out of any danger whatsoever.

*****

Wolves, like many of the higher animals, have a vague understanding of the self. They have strong memories. They can recognise friends and enemies by sight, sound, and smell. They communicate the same way. They can even express the concept of a specific creature or place. Dire wolves, for all their greater savagery, are no different.

If she had a name as humans or elves understood the notion, it might translate to 'Fleet the Strongjaw'. Countless hunts had proven she had earned this. She had run with the great packs of her true kind among the cold pines, and dominated the cub packs of these warmer lands. Now she was old. She was still strong. She was still fast. And even alone, this was enough to stop her from starving. She almost remembered when she never hungered, or felt cold, but these were less memories, more dreams. Faint. Unimportant.

Heavy rain was falling. All scents would be washed away soon enough. No matter. She knew about the clumsy tree-pieces that two-feet often kept horses near. They left deep tracks, better to follow than scent, and greatly slowed horses. She would kill these two-feet first, to safeguard its catch, then leave them. Horse-flesh was a better meal than any two-feet. The big two-feet here looked to be all muscle and sinew anyway.

It had a strange smell to it, but she was not afraid, merely wary through experience. It smelled like the rocky two-feet she had once hunted along pine trails and frosted cliffs, but different. They were tough prey, and were sometimes the hunters. This smelled like a female, but not a mother. This was good. Mothers were very dangerous. Many of her pack-mates ran no more after fighting a mother. She was almost intelligent enough to regret not being one herself.

There was also its not-claw, for two-feet were mostly weak and had no fangs in their mouth or claws on their feet to fight. The not-claw it carried was much bigger than those she had seen before, and his predator`s instincts warned it would give the two-feet a long reach. She had lost half an ear to that mistake once. Never again. Not even now.

Her jaws hurt. Her throat hurt. She was thirsty all the time, but water burned her. Her spit poured from her always. She felt angry always. Sometimes she even wanted to bite herself. She had seen cub packs stop running when too many felt like this. Her most recent pack had felt like this. They fought each other as if each was of a different pack. Some had even fought her too. She was almost intelligent enough to understand her pain had come from this.

Killing two-feet helped for a little time. They did not taste so good as horse, but those with not-claws at least fought better. This made her less angry. There was less pain when she was less angry. She was very angry now. She moved in to kill the big two-feet with the big not-claw. It fought very well. It fought better than any prey she had ever hunted. Soon there was almost no pain at all, even when its not-claw bit her.

She was almost intelligent enough to feel gratitude.

*****

Water and obscenities both poured from the half-elf`s mouth as he fought the current to reach the riverbank. He did not need to look to know that a hoof-shaped bruise was already forming underneath his mail. If he was unlucky, he would find out in a day or two that the blow had cracked a rib as well. Not badly, inasmuch as any broken bone can not be a bad thing, but just enough to possibly avoid notice until it healed wrong and would need...correction.

Aidan had experienced that delightful nightmare once before, many years ago. For some reason, it was more embarrassing to admit that he had broken his arm by falling out of a tree he had been playing in than by fighting some terrible monster, and the number of people who knew the truth could be counted on the fingers of one hand. That he had been somewhere north of forty years old when this happened probably accounted for the embarrassment. Having the bone re-broken and re-set by a trained healer was not something he ever wished to undergo again.

At least for the moment, his pride was more badly injured. He stamped his way up the bank to the road, arguing with himself over the merits of having horse for supper tonight - always assuming this torrential downpour stopped long enough to actually make a fire possible - and just harnessing himself to the cart. Or harnessing Embla to it, more realistically. She was both large enough and strong enough to make such a thing feasible, if somewhat degrading to the Erunian warrior.

He reached the top of the bank in time to see Embla crash into the mud on her back, her sword arm gripped between the jaws of the massive wolf. He suspected his expression of surprise was a mirror of her own, especially when they both realized that she had dropped her sword at the same time. Aidan had seen some of the feats of strength she had performed, even when not empowered by berserk fury, and for her to have been literally brought low like this seemed staggeringly unlikely.

More worrying, however, was the calculating and almost thoughtful look on the wolf`s face, despite the clear signs of it being rabid. Ordinarily, Aidan would not have balked at facing such a creature, even unarmed as he was - that accursed horse had taken the cart and his warhammer with it! - but mere rabid savagery was one thing, and what he saw in this creature was another. It chilled him more than the rain.

"Today, villtri!" Embla bellowed at him, trying to prise apart the jaws with her other hand. "This hurts a lot, fool!"

Startled, Aidan shook himself and rushed forward to help. Clasping his hands together over his head, he took a deep breath to steady his aim, and brought down his fists with all his strength on the nape of the dire wolf. It let out the faintest grunt that was not entirely of pain, but more of surprise. For the briefest moment, its grip on Embla loosened.

It was enough. With her own immense strength, Embla forced apart its jaws and withdrew her arm before it could recover itself. She swung, but the wolf leapt away. It started to snarl at the two warriors, then stopped. It looked down at the ruts left by the cart. For a few seconds, it seemed to be considering its options. Then it turned and fled into the deepening night, leaving the two warriors behind.

*****

They caught up with the horse and cart ten minutes later, and after verifying that Brokk in particular was stable - for the sake of appearances, Isolde sniffed and pouted a little at that - and resumed their journey as best they could. The storm was getting even worse, and none of them were surprised. It had been building for nigh on two weeks, leading to an evermore oppressive atmosphere that had soon quashed their improving mood.

After their exhausting struggles against the undead that continued plagued the nation of Daven, they had decided to travel north into Kelerak, hoping to find a cure for whatever ailed Brokk. The dwarf, or rather his wizardry, had proven instrumental in their success, but he had paid a heavy price. He had lain, still and unresponsive, for several days before starting to come back to them. Close to a month after that final battle, he was still prone to narcoleptic fits and drifting in and out of lucidity. He had spoken of professional correspondents in Kelerak, academics and experts in various fields, and his friends knew that Brokk`s best chances for recovery lay with one or more of them.

At last, some time after it was already impossible for them to become any more drenched, Aidan made the decision to turn off the road proper and find shelter. The Stonewall Mountains that divided the nations of Daven and Kelerak were riddled with caves. Almost immediately, they found one big enough to admit the horse and cart, and hurried into it. As Embla and Isolde began the business of setting up camp, Aidan heaved himself into the back of the cart to check again on Brokk.

"Rough night, isn`t it?"

The voice that came from the back of the cave was a strong one that carried clearly over the crashing of the storm. There was laughter behind it, a maniacal delight that made the simply question remarkably unsettling. Aidan narrowed his eyes at the speaker, wondering both that the man had not lit a fire for himself already and that they had not seen him until now, but from his awkward position could not make much out. He was a tall and straight-backed figure leaning half on a whorled staff and half against the cave wall, dressed in strange-patterned travelling robes and with a wild mop of greying hair.

"Tell you a secret," the peculiar man continued, shaking with unconstrained mirth. "No chance of reaching Fisherman`s Solace now. This is no ordinary storm, my friends. It is a herald of disaster. A forerunner of doom most foul."

Aidan nodded understandingly, humouring the madman, only for Isolde to blurt out, "And naturally you know this?"

"Of course I do!" came the reply. "I see everything."

The man threw back his head to roar with glee as the storm intensified. Lightning cracked outside, briefly illuminating his craggy features, but the four friends were horror-struck, unable to take in any of them bar the most dreadful.

His eyes were sewn shut.

Woot! Hell yes! They’re back. But does Embla now have rabies?

You mean she didn't already? ;P

Haha








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