Part 22 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion
The University of Wynarn, Fairhaven
“’We regret to inform you that your findings are not worthy of merit!’” An old elf reads aloud, anger punctuating the last few words, “’The University Board respectfully reminds the addressed, Professor Langhorn, that mundane weather prediction is, at best, capricious. As no other reputable source can verify these findings, and in full consideration of the unlikely nature of the hypothesis, we regretfully must reject this research proposal, and suggest seeking alternative avenues of study!?’”
“How could they, Professor?” a young woman, who was sitting next to the scholar at his desk, asks.
“Pah, superstitious bastards. A druid ‘communes with nature’ for a second, has the gall to say the data I collected for months amounted to nothing more than ‘spurious claims,’ and now the university is giving me ultimatums. Me! One would think my status would at least give me some leeway.”
“What does this mean for us?” the elf asks, glancing out the window at the evening sun.
“It’s simple!” the Professor says, an air of false levity in his voice, “Either we drop this matter and the light of Aundair continues to dim, or we pursue it and get tossed out. Maybe when they’re casting fire spells just to clear a path through the FEET OF SNOW that will fall this winter, they’ll consider if it’s worth their pride to beg us back.”
“Surely we could petition the Queen? This is a matter of national urgency!”
“We’ll never make it past Fairhold Gate,” Professor Langhorn says, dismissively, and sighs. “I’ll have to think of something else to study, or at least pretend to study, until they can’t pretend to ignore the effects of… whatever is happening.”
“How long could that take?” the student questions, worriedly.
“Not too long, I hope,” the Professor answers forlornly, burning the letter with fire from his fingertips. He pensively watches the embers smolder harmlessly on his desk, and continues, “Else we may wait too long to act.”
Forest Village, Meanwhile
Marwyn nervously plucked at his lute strings, trying his best to appear calm. Cletus had lit a pipe, and Vargard had withdrawn his real flask, after replacing his sword. Only moments after they had assumed this façade had Marwyn noticed, out of the corner of his eye, movement in the treeline. He assumed it was one of the villagers, keeping watch over them, but tried not to let it bother him.
The song allowed cover for their whispering as well, though they had to keep it disguised for fear of letting the illusion slip. Vargard had briefly thought of going for his sending stone, but decided against it.
“It’s up to Gelwin now,” he says, “If she sets them off, this is going to get messy.”
“Shouldn’t we be… I mean, Var, if these are all werewolves, isn’t it our job to kill them?” Marwyn asks.
“Technically our job was to escort the Thranes and keep them in line,” Vargard whispers back, his lips covered by his flask, “I have to admit encountering a village of lycans wasn’t on my mind when I took the job.”
“How’d they hide here for so long?” Marwyn follows, and his fingers temporarily slip on the lute. The false note hangs in the air for a second, but Marwyn recovers from the fumble. The three let out an inner sigh of relief as nothing happens.
“Secluded. Might ‘o been able ta keep ta ‘emselves,” Cletus offers.
“I’m halfway wondering if we should leave the Thranes to their own fate if they provoke them,” Vargard says, and pauses as a village walks by, carrying a bucket. He briefly glances over at her, careful only to keep an impassive look on his face.
“But… that’s not our mission,” Marwyn reminds, disappointment in his words.
“Best trick a mercenary can know is when to cut and run, when a job is turning into a suicide mission. It’s not glamorous, certainly not honorable, but a black mark is better than a fatal wound,” Vargard counters, “If we’re lucky, the Thranes are blind to what we’ve seen. Or we could just be overreacting,” he sighs, taking a real drink for the first time, “Won’t know for sure until the blades start coming out.”
Forest Edge Camp, Several Hours after Midday
Things had quieted after Triton’s rousing, though the air remained tense. To Jorduna, the supposed valiant knights of Thrane looked spooked.
“They should have returned by now. Something is wrong,” Lesani says, suddenly. Jorduna turns away from watching their companions, and notices Lesani holding a sending stone.
“No one’s answering?” the hobgoblin asks, slight concern in her voice.
“Not exactly,” she replies, holding the stone close to her ear, “There is faint tapping at the other end, but it is not repetitive. I believe they are unable to talk at present.”
“So what, are we going after them now?”
“I am not sure the Thranes would appreciate this, though they appear to be unsure of themselves as well. Perhaps this is best discussed with Doria.”
“Doria,” Lesani repeats, nodding at the chaplain.
“How’d you know her name?”
“Because I am apparently the only one intent on knowing those we are escorting. Come on,” the elf says briskly, standing, “If Var is in trouble, we should not keep him waiting.”
“Chaplain Doria!” Lesani shouts, halfway at a run towards the Thrane’s side of the camp.
The Chaplain’s tent, which normally is shared by Triton and two other men, was the farthest away from where The Split Falchion slept in the open. The two mercenaries passed the remaining Thranes on their way to it. Triton was still lying on his stretcher, close to the Thranes’ fire, but not so close as to risk him falling into it.
“Wha, what is it?” the Chaplain answers, looking at the approaching figures through the flap in her tent. She was sitting on her own bunk, reading. As she turned to answer, both women noticed a terrified look on her face, despite the purifier’s attempt to hide it.
“We are unable to reach our comrades,” Lesani explains, brandishing her sending stone, “As such, we are going in after them.”
“Your orders were to… guard the camp,” the Chaplain argues, unconvincingly. Her mind was clearly preoccupied by something else. Her unwillingness to strongly counter Lesani was noticed by the three Thranish swordsmen by the fire.
“Seems like you have troubles of your own. Sure we should stay here?” Jorduna questions.
“Yes, you do seem troubled,” Lesani adds, “I assume this has to do with Chaplain Triton’s outburst?”
“He s..spoke in holy tongue… a language no mortal should speak…” the Chaplain answers, her speech betraying her obvious shock.
“I have never heard of such a thing,” Lesani challenges, tilting her head slightly to the side.
“It is kept secret among the holy order of the Silver Flame, I should not have told you…”
“Who cares? He’s sick, probably just babbling. We need to go and get our friends!” Jorduna cuts in.
“This is not the ravings of a sick mind, this is a message from the Flame!” the Chaplain bites back, iron back in her voice. She glances at her journal, and continues, “A message I just finished translating.”
“What was this message?” Lesani asks. The Thranes outside of the tent began whispering amongst themselves at the news, though they were too far to make out anything.
“Without going into detail of the sacred language and its many intricacies, the sum of the communication was that Gelwin is walking into a trap, and we need leave immediately. I will need you two to stay here to look after Triton…”
“Fat chance!” Jorduna cries.
“I will remind you who your employer is, mercenary,” Doria chastises, voice full with a dangerous tone.
“I only answer to one, and right now he needs our help. Damn this contract, I’m going after him.”
“Jor, I would not be so hasty,” Lesani says, backing out of the tent in order to get out of the way of the hobgoblin. The rogue brushes past the other Thranes, who had stopped talking amongst themselves to watch the tableau.
Lesani looks helplessly between her departing friend, and the furious Thranish Chaplain. “My apologies, but I cannot remain if she leaves.”
“So be it,” Doria seethes, “But there will be a reckoning for this! Men, I will remain, you follow those belligerent fools and save the Purifiers.”
“Yes, Chaplain!” the three swordsmen cry out, standing at attention, and then quickly retrieving their gear. The two women manage to easily best them, however, and are already at the forest’s edge when the rest depart.
Forest Village, One Hour Earlier
Marwyn and the rest had been at the village for several hours now, so long that the noonday sun began to descend. The trees surrounding the clearing began to block the light, making it look close to dusk. As fortunate as this was, the oil the three had applied to their weapons had long since worn away.
Neither Gelwin nor the villager had come out of the house in the entire time, and the two Thranes guarding the door were beginning to look nervous. The village itself seemed to be charged with building tension, waiting for a spark to kick off something deadly.
Marwyn had abandoned his lute and took to resting his eyes, sitting against one of the beams of the abandoned house. He wasn’t sure if no one truly lived there, or the villager that did was avoiding it out of fear of the mercenaries.
He was awoken by the sound of shifting leather, Vargard had his hand at the hilt of his sword. An elderly woman was walking much closer than any other villager. In fact, she was heading straight for them.
“Which is the youngest among you?” she asks, when close enough. Marwyn realizes she is an elf, and the amount of age she wore suggested she was ancient.
Vargard made no attempt to hide the fact that he reached for his weapon, but neither did the elf seem bothered by this. “Can’t you tell?” he asks evenly.
“I felt it was polite to ask,” the woman replies stolidly, “I have business with your bard.”
“Marwyn?” Vargard responds, confused.
“Yes, the son of the sea,” the elf nods, to the further confusion of the three. “A portent, have I, he need hear.”
“I’m sorry… you’re mistaken. I’ve never been at sea, no one in my family has,” Marwyn responds, thinking the woman senile.
“Do not think you can fool me, youngling. I am old, but not blind. You would be wise to hear me.”
“Uh… Var?” Marwyn says, feebly.
“Anything you need say you can say here,” Vargard says, determinedly.
“No, it cannot be here,” the woman says, “I must treat with him alone.”
“I don’t even know your name, how am I to trust you?” Vargard asks.
“It is Yul’adan. You needed only to ask, son of Nimerin.”
Vargard stiffens, as if she had cut him with his very own sword, and says coldly, “How do you know my father’s name?” Cletus, who had thus far been uninterested in the conversation, suddenly shifts his gaze to Yul’adan as well.
“I know many things, and I trust this clears any doubt you have of me?”
“Not a chance. Leave us,” Vargard says bruskly.
Marwyn, however, whispers, “Var, the villagers, they’re staring at us.”
Vargard takes a quick look back at the main path through the village, and notices that the dozen or so villagers in sight had indeed turned to look at the mercenaries, and that all the children had suddenly disappeared.
“I am most regretful, but I am bound to deliver this message. You want no trouble, I imagine? Well?” she pushes, when Vargard doesn’t immediately respond.
“He stays in sight of me at all times.” Vargard bargains, “And only if Marwyn agrees to this… madness.”
“Well, youngling?” Yul’adan looks to the bard.
“I… Just, make it quick,” Marwyn replies uncomfortably.
“I shall,” Yul’adan smiles for the first time. It wasn’t an unpleasant smile, despite her age. “Come, those stumps look far enough,” she says, pointing to a small gathering of old tree stumps, their trunks probably cut when the village was constructed. The spot was near the clearing’s edge, a couple hundred paces from Vargard and Cletus.
“What about, oh,” Marwyn exclaims softly, expecting to see one of the villagers there. Instead, they had departed unnoticed by the bard, when he had turned to Yul’adan.
“Come, come! I thought you wanted this over quickly,” the woman shouts, turning to walk towards the indicated site. Marwyn glances briefly at Vargard, and then follows.
“What the hell is she?” Cletus murmurs to Vargard when the others get out of earshot.
“I have no idea, Cletus. But I think we are wrong about this place,” Vargard whispers, “and not in a good way.”
“Why did you call me child of the sea?” Marwyn asks, as he took a seat opposite of Yul’adan.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea. I simply knew that is what to call you by,” she responds simply, “But that isn’t important. As I said, I have a portent for you.”
“A what?” Marwyn asks.
“A fortune, if you will. Once, I was sought for this talent, though not in many years. In fact, this will be the first in some time. And my last.”
“Are you dying?” Marwyn questions, surprised by her last statement.
“Not as such. But my time will quickly come, as it always was. My ‘Knights of Silver’ have arrived to guide me to my eternal sleep… but as for your portent, listen carefully.”
“O..ok,” Marwyn replies.
“Blood will be spilled today, but not!” she cries out, clenching Marwyn’s arm to prevent him from rising, “Not! that of your companions if you listen,” she quickly releases Marwyn’s arm when he ceased resisting. From afar, Vargard briefly drew his sword, but replaced it when the elf released Marwyn. She speaks over Marwyn’s attempted questions, and continues, “You must take your friends North, as soon as blood touches this hallowed ground. Run, till light breaks, then you may head east. And you must not tell anyone of this before it occurs, lest all be lost.”
“Why tell me this?” Marwyn asks, “If there is to be fighting, couldn’t we prevent it?”
“No,” the woman shakes her head sadly, “No we may not, but you four are important, lest I would not have been told to save you.”
“Four? We are five.”
“Yes, of course,” the elf gives a smile, “My mistake. I suppose time has left my abilities somewhat wanting. Remember, north, till the light breaks, then east. I must go now, do not follow, and do not tell until the time is right!” Yul’adan then quickly stands, and departs into the trees without a further word.
The woman’s words swirled in Marwyn’s head as he tried to make sense of them. Part of him wished she was merely crazy, but somewhere inside of him he knew that her words carried more weight than that. And further, he didn’t believe she had merely miscounted, despite the claim none of The Split Falchion would die this day. A sense of foreboding befell Marwyn, and it was if a great weight was pressing down on him as he walked back to his friends.
“What did she want?” Vargard asks gruffly, as Marwyn returned.
“I… think we need to leave, Var,” Marwyn responds worryingly.
“Leave?” Vargard returns to hushed tones as the bard makes it back to the hovel’s wall, “Marwyn, we can’t just leave, we’re on mission whether we like it or…”
“Var!” Cletus says sharply. He had been watching the main road from the corner of the house.
“The Thranes, they’re… bringin’ outta’ body.”
The three mercenaries come out of their seclusion, drawn by what Cletus had reported. Vargard curses slightly when he sees the two Thranish swordsmen who had accompanied Gelwin dragging the man who had first challenged her out of the house. He wasn’t resisting them. In fact, he wasn’t moving at all.
“Gelwin, what have you done?!” Vargard yells, as the purifier herself exits, seemingly unharmed. The two Thranes carrying the body lay it against the frame of the door.
Gasps, then low murmuring fill the village as the distant watchers see him remain still. The inhabitants of the village, save one, had been silent thus far as their home was invaded. No more, it seems.
“He attacked me!” Gelwin shouts, “Mentally subdued my companions and attempted to rend my mind asunder.” She spits towards the corpse, and eyes Vargard as he reaches her in a fury, “They are more worthy of your spite than I. I saw it in that freak’s mind, they harbor monsters. More than just lycans! We have t…” the purifier tries to say, but is drowned out by sudden cries of ‘murderer’ from the south. As the outsiders clustered in the center turned to face them, they saw that there were suddenly more surrounding them then had ever been before. And not just humanoids, the true colors of the forest denizens now showing. Marwyn’s eyes catches a few that looked a cruel fusion of man and beast, the supposed lycanthropes they had been hunting. Other, darker shapes lingered in the crowd those who seemed normal, but Marwyn’s attention was disrupted when Vargard grabbed his arm.
“We’re leaving!” he yells to Gelwin.
“Cowards!” the Thranishwoman yells after the departing mercenaries, but her gaze is drawn back towards the advancing line of villagers. A long, deep snarl comes from the largest of the lycans towards the front of the line. Beside it, stands an elderly woman, and the two seemed to lead the throng. Gelwin quickly draws a sword and applies to it oil. “Stand your ground, men. Put your faith in the flame!” she shouts, preparing for the onslaught.
Fortunately for Marwyn and company, the north path out of the village was clear of any aggressors. “See anyone?” Vargard shouts, leading the other two in the race out of the village.
“Yes, a’ead!” Cletus shouts, “Flame!” The men Cletus saw become readily visible as they round a bend in the path. Three of the Thranish soldiers, those who had been left at the camp, were moving at full speed along the path. One was bleeding from a wound on his arm, but it did not seem to affect his running.
The leader’s hand briefly reaches for a sword, but pauses when he recognizes the other party. Seeing that they weren’t slowing, the Thrane passed without a word, the sounds of battle breaking through the trees drawing his concern.
As they pass, Vargard realized he hadn’t had contact with the rest of his team in quite some time. He had disabled the chime of his sending stone while in the village, and focus on their surroundings had made him forget it entirely.
“Les!” he yells, struggling to withdraw the stone while keeping pace.
“Var?!” the elf’s voice responds, with a mixture of concern and relief.
“Mission’s gone to Khyber. We’re trying to get out of the forest, be ready for us,” Vargard orders.
“Var, we tried contacting you. We thought you were in trouble, so we..”
“Are you in danger?” Vargard asks hurriedly, while ducking to avoid a low branch that encroached on their path.
“Not anymore. We were attacked by a werewolf shortly after entering the forest. I urged the Thranes that came with us to move slowly, but after we felled it they started rushing…”
“Just passed them. Get out, now.”
“But Var, you..”
“Get out Les! Make sure Jor… Jor follows. Looks like their focusing on the Thranes, though we aren’t sticking around to… make sure,” Vargard says, overriding Lesani. It was becoming hard for him to speak clearly as it was, he couldn’t afford a debate.
“Cletus, Marwyn, see anything?” Vargard asks, cutting the stone’s connection.
“Canna’ really see anythin’,” Cletus answers evenly, coping better with the extended sprint. Marwyn, on the other hand, was not, and could barely eek out a negative.
“We need to… head east. Make it out of the woods.”
“No!” Marwyn protests, summoning the breath to shout.
“Marwyn?” Vargard briefly glances over to the trailing bard, confused at the objection.
“Keep heading… until light breaks…” Marwyn breathes, lungs barely taking in enough air to sustain his run as it is.
Vargard stops and grabs Marwyn by the shoulders, slowing him as well. “What?” he says quickly. Cletus had stopped as well, and already had an arrow nocked, eyes to the surroundings.
“Woman in the village… said to keep north… until light breaks,” Marwyn says, in between heavy breaths.
“Already passed a few clearings,” Cletus remarks.
Vargard shakes his head, and answers, “It’s a trap. I’ve no idea who these people are, but I doubt they’ll see us as friends now.”
“No, Var… knew attack was going to happen…”
“I think we should… trust her…”
“We can move faster on tha’ trail,” Cletus muses.
“Fine, but first sign of trouble and we make for the East,” Vargard compromises, and the three resume their fast pace towards the north, following the path.
Lesani and Jorduna break from the tree line, having successfully avoided any predators that may have been lying in wait. It became apparent that danger may still lurk close by, however, as they are greeted by the scene of the Thranish camp alight with fire. The horses of both groups also appeared to have been captured, scattered, or perhaps slaughtered.
“The camp…” Jorduna says, taking out a throwing knife.
“Doria!” Lesani yells out. After none respond, she says, “We should keep our distance…”
“What the hell happened?” Jorduna asks, “We weren’t gone more than an hour.”
“It appears we highly underestimated the situation. Our… priority now should be finding horses.”
“What about the Thranes?”
“What about them?” Lesani mirrors the question, coldly.
Jorduna was about to respond when a sudden crashing sound drew her attention, a throwing knife already loosed in its direction. However, a few seconds later, she realizes it was just thunder, from a storm rolling in. It had been approaching for some time, but their time in the forest had deprived them the chance to see it coming. “As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough to find those horses, we’ve got lightning scaring them of.”
“It may help cover our friends escape,” Lesani reasons.
“Yeah… but there’s no way we’re getting out of here dry.” Jorduna takes a wide look at the plains to the east, hoping to catch a glimpse of a departing horse. Her eyes catch the burning tents again, and she comments, “I really hope Var’s got a good explanation for this when we get back to Fairhaven.”
Lesani sighs, and affirms, “As do I.”
The rain had just begun when Cletus calls for a stop, seemingly unprovoked. They had mercifully remained safe thus far, though their pace had slowed as their stamina dwindled.
“What is it?” Vargard asks, alert for any movement in the trees.
“’Light breaks’… we need ta’ turn ‘ere,” he explains.
“What?” Marwyn asks, confused. He too had been looking for the prophesized turning point, though they hadn’t come to a clearing since he had mentioned the prophecy.
“There,” Cletus points to a faint rainbow above and ahead of them, created from the mist that made it through the brown canopy.
“I don’t understand,” Marwyn says.
“We’ll explain later, good eye Cletus,” Vargard responds, “Surprised to say that woman might not have been entirely crazy.” The path still continued north here, and to Vargard’s knowledge it remained so for another half an hour at their pace. He eyes the underbrush they would have to move through with distaste, but starts in that direction, his two companions following. He withdraws his sending stone again. “Les, we’ve started moving east. The rain’s not letting up, how’s your end?”
The response comes after a pause, “The Thranish camp was destroyed. We found a horse that, ah!”
“Les?” Vargard asks, worried.
“Gah,” she gasps, but continues, “Sorry, we found a horse that had broken its leg in flight. We are trying to administer a healing potion, though it is proving… difficult.”
Over the stone, Vargard can just make out Jorduna swearing from what he assumes is the horse fighting back. Healing potions were rarely used on mounts, and the difficulty in forcing the liquid down a panicked horse’s throat was one of the primary reasons.
“Any survive?” Vargard asks.
“Yes, Var, at least one,” Lesani responds, speaking louder in case the rain was interfering with her words.
“No, I meant the Thranes,” Vargard clarifies.
“Oh. Not… not that I saw. It was only the unconscious one and the healer that stayed. I do not imagine…”
“Don’t worry about them,” Vargard cuts her off, “Not until we’re away.”
“Yes, Var. Where should we meet you?”
“Cletus!?” Vargard yells, repeating the question.
“Should come out ‘bout ‘alf a mile south from camp,” the dwarf responds. Being the more experienced in this terrain, he had started to take a lead from his companions, despite his smaller stature. This wasn’t necessarily unhelpful, as Marwyn had quickly learned to try and mimic his movements through the brush. Even so, the bard was struggling to keep out, having kept forced march pace for over a few hours now.
“Half a mile south of the camp. ETA one hour. Haven’t encountered anyone and don’t think we’re being followed, but can’t be too careful.”
“Understood, be safe Var,” Lesani yells back, and then cuts the connection, assumedly to focus on the horse.
10 minutes later
The horse had recovered from its wound, thanks to the potion, and the two mercenaries had managed to calm it to the point of it being calmed. The horse was one of the Thranes, stouter and better trained than those The Split Falchion had purchased in Fairhaven. Normally adapted to carry a heavily armored knight, it was more than capable of carrying the two more slender women.
“We will need at least one more,” Lesani says, over the rain.
“You’re giving the next one the potion, this bastard nearly took my hand off,” Jorduna complains.
“Hopefully we shall find one or two who have sought shelter from the rain,” Lesani says, “There was an abandoned building we passed on the way here.”
“What?” Jorduna asks.
“I noticed it while we were riding… it does not matter, I will get us there. With luck, some of the fleeing mounts will have stopped there as their terror subsided.”
“Whatever, so long as I’m nowhere near that thing’s mouth,” Jorduna says, waiting for Lesani to climb onto the saddle, and then taking a somewhat uncomfortable position behind her. “Can you move up a little? I’m on the edge of this.”
“Apologies,” Lesani replies, and attempts to make some room for her riding companion. They were somewhat precariously balanced this way, but they made do.
“Will we make it back in time?” Jorduna asks, as they started making way.
Lesani’s reassurances proved somewhat overconfident, however. They indeed found two horses sheltering under a leaky roof of some rundown building close to the main road, though it took them the best part of their remaining time to do so. It might have once been an inn, or perhaps the abode of someone who enjoyed watching travelers take this route to and from Aundair’s capital. Whatever the case, now it was decaying. The rain was doing nothing to help the rot that had eaten away at half of the structure, leaving the interior even more exposed to the elements.
These horses seemed to be of the plainer variety that they had originally ridden, and fortunately, one appeared to be Lesani’s. It seemed to recognize its former rider, and didn’t balk when she approached. After quickly reassuring that the saddles of both were still on properly, Lesani mounted her horse, the reigns of the other in her hand. In this fashion, she and Jorduna began riding back west.
“Var!” Lesani yells into her stone, the rain picking up and making both the journey and talking difficult.
“I hear you!” he responds in kind, the sound of their struggle through the forest carrying over. “Almost out, where are you?”
“Just found two more horses, we should get there perhaps only shortly after you get out.”
“Good! Might make it out unscathed. Marwyn, uh,” he pauses as he takes a breath, “Couldn’t keep up so I’m carrying him. It’s slowing us down a little but not too much.”
“We will go as fast as we can,” Lesani responds, and Vargard grunts in acknowledgement. “They’re close, still unmolested,” she shouts over to Jorduna.
“That strike you as odd?” Jorduna shouts back, “Thanes get wiped out but they’re untouched?”
“No point in worrying about it now,” Lesani reasons, “Just ride!”
With a final push, three men finally break out from the tree line, and stop to catch their breath. Marwyn, who had been slung over Vargard’s shoulder like a sack of flour, had acquired an exquisite set of bruises from where Vargard’s armor had rubbed against his flesh. He wasn’t complaining, however, as he could even now barely stand from exhaustion.
The rain was close to a downpour, with scattered thunder and lightning striking across the plain. This wasn’t a concern of theirs, however, as their eyes were on the horizon, looking for approaching horses.
“Should… should contact Les,” Vargard pants, sitting down. His hand reaches for his belt, but Marwyn’s voice stops him.
“Var… behind us,” the bard cries. Out of the corner of his eye, he had noticed a shape that was outlined by a flash of lightning. One that didn’t look friendly.
A loud snarl echoes out from the forest, and in nearly an instant Vargard had drawn his sword. His shield arm was slower, still stiff from bearing Marwyn, and it wasn’t ready when a wolven form came tearing out of the forest at him. It moved as though a man on all fours, and soon it became clear that it was nothing less than a lycanthrope.
Marwyn, adrenaline providing life to his failing limbs, managed to scramble of out the way and behind the warrior, who readied his sword. An arrow glances the beast, but it ignores it entirely. As it got closer, wounds became evident, all edged by charred flesh. The wound from Cletus’ arrow, however, closes on itself.
“Damn’d rain, washin’ off tha’ oil,” Cletus curses, and Marwyn notices that the dwarf had tried to apply some of the silvered oil to an arrow.
“You… led them here. The Matriach… dead. You will pay!” the beast snarls, speaking now in the common tongue, mere feet from Vargard. Its pause allowed Vargard a chance to withdraw his shield, though the werewolf assaulted him mere moments after.
“She wanted us to escape safely!” Marwyn protests, hoping the beast was talking about the women who had talked with him.
“Hraaaar!” the beast mere snarls in anger, oblivious to Marwyn’s pleas.
“Marwyn, magic’s, euh,” Vargard grunts, as the beast claws at him, “Magic’s the only thing we’ve got. I’ll keep it at bay!” he says, punctuating the statement with a cut at the lycan. Completely focused as it was on assaulting Vargard, the blow deals terrible damage to the werewolf’s torso. The wound closes, as had the other, and the warrior’s foe remains completely unbothered.
Marwyn fumbles for his bow, and curses as he remembers unstringing it during the flight. All that were left were his crossbows. He fires both madly at the terror before him, and curses again when he sees the bolts pushed out of the matted fur. I can’t cast and fire two of these, he realizes, and sheathes one as Vargard takes another deep gash from the claws of the wolf. Blood, mixed with the falling rain, began to run down his shield arm, and it was becoming harder for Vargard to hold it up.
Making a quick decision, Marwyn mumbles a quick incantation to restore Vargard’s stamina, before sending a bolt charged with the greatest magic he could muster towards the beast. He strikes it true, but his heart falls when that too seems useless.
“I can’t harm it!” Marwyn yells hopelessly.
“Don’t use your bo… ack!” Vargard grits his teeth, the lapse in concentration forcing him to take another hit.
His words were enough for Marwyn, however, and he desperately tries to remember the spell Mevalyn had taught him ages ago. Taking a shot in the dark, he forces out a diatribe against the wolf, mocking it for its cursed form and inability to protect its leader. To his relief, the beast snarls again, clutching its head in obvious pain. Marwyn only realizes his mistake when the beast charges blindly at him, forgetting Vargard. Practically defenseless against the raging fangs, Marwyn is bashed to the ground by a backhand swipe, the tips of the claws drawing red lines across his cheek.
Marwyn barely dodges a lunge for his throat by rolling to the side, and it isn’t until the beast’s muzzle is inches from his face when he remembers…
Reaching for his lute as if his life depends on it, Marwyn tries to withdraw it. The bell of the instrument is trapped against the ground by his back, however, and he can’t withdraw it before the lycan renews its attacks… only to have Vargard’s shoulder connect with its chest. The warrior tackles him, and Cletus, entering the melee, joins his friend to form a wall between the bard and the beast. Standing, Marwyn wields his muddy lute, and plays a simple melody. The song was marred somewhat by the state of the instrument, but that didn’t matter.
The wolf-man pauses, dazed by the song. Marwyn lets out a triumphant whoop. The effect isn’t long, though before the beast can fully recover its senses, a throwing knife slams into its left shoulder. The beast screams as smoke curls from the wound, rain hissing as it comes in contact with the metal. Marwyn turns to his right to see a heavily armored horse bearing a hobgoblin bearing down on him, two others behind.
Cletus, taking initiative, wrenches the knife from the wound, wielding it in place of his short sword. The beast eyes the weapon fearfully, its wounds, both new and old, beginning to wear on it. But it was the arrival of Lesani that truly heralded its doom.
Her horse, fearful of the beast, yet prodded on by Lesani, carried her within range. She let loose a crackle of dark energy, which shimmered through the rain and impacted the beast, causing it to roar in pain. With a paw clutching the still-smoking wound in its shoulder, it falls to its knees. Head hung low, and breathing deeply, it begins to change, taking on a more human form.
Seeing Cletus ready his knife for another stab, the lycan, now a man, lets out a scream of defiance.
“Wait,” Vargard says quickly, holding an arm across Cletus to stop the dwarf from finishing the shapeshifter.
“I won’t be captured! I will end myself before I…” the man starts, but the warrior cuts him off.
“What?” the man says, bewildered.
“We were here to make sure the Thranes didn’t get out of hand. Suppose we failed at that. I assume none survived?”
“None,” the man confirms, “Though the victory was not… absolute. What will you do with me, if not capture?”
“What are we doing with him, Var?” Lesani asks, handing the reigns of her other horse to Cletus, who had backed away from the tableau.
“Just a few questions, then we’ll both head out in the opposite direction,” Var says. “Anyone with you?”
“No,” the man shakes his head roughly, “When Yul fell… she told us before not to pursue any who did not fight, but my rage consumed me. None followed me.”
“How did you know we were coming?” Vargard continues abruptly.
“She received a vision… that her and her child would perish that day, and we would lose our home. I…,” the man sighs heavily, shoulders dropping even further, “dared not believe that would come to pass, but now it has.”
“What was that village?”
“One of many. A haven for those society at large wouldn’t tolerate. Not all were… as I,” the man says, “Some merely refugees, and others… stranger. She is… was one such.”
“Why bring one such to Fairhaven? Surely you knew the attention that would draw.”
The man spits, blood evident among the saliva, and answers, “One of my kind had contracted… we have no word for it, for we do not give it the honor of a name. It kills my kind, horribly, and without any hope of recovery. His mate, driven by desperation, endangered our kind,” he says, anger tinging his words, “Brought about all this. We weren’t harming anyone! We were peaceful…”
“There was a sick man and his caregiver in that camp,” Lesani cuts in, indicating the now smoldering remains of the Thranish camp, “Why then, would you attack them?”
“What?” the lycanthrope responds, dumbfounded.
“You set fire to their camp, and, I assume, killed the two that were there.”
“No,” the man shakes his head again, “Save for my… transgression, we would not have touched any outside of this forest. We are a peaceful people, unless provoked,” he answers, a hint of a growl in the last words.
“I believe him,” Vargard says, “You are sure no others in the forest survived?”
“Yes,” the man says, lowering his head solemnly, “We allowed no mercy, though they certainly asked for none.”
Vargard thinks for a moment, then nods in satisfaction, “Then go. We won’t trouble you further, but I can’t say the same for anyone else.”
“Yes, the Reaches have similar havens scattered in their forests. I imagine they will not be… enthused about accepting us. But they cannot turn us away.” He stands, awkwardly, wounds making it difficult to move. The man obviously recovered some strength, however, as he reverts back to the bestial form that he had assaulted them with. The beast crouches, ready to take off, but offers a few last words, twisted through his muzzle. “I… thank you for your mercy.” He then bounds away, without further word.
Jorduna is the first to break the silence, as she dismounts and walks up to Cletus. “So, uh… my knife?” she asks.
“’course” Cletus says, flipping the knife and handing it to her.
“When did you get a silver throwing knife?” Vargard asks, curious.
“As I believe I’ve said before, you can never have enough knifes,” Jorduna replies, returning the knife to a mysterious pocket hidden somewhere in her clothing. “Hit a target on horseback, long range, and I’d really love to brag, but we should get out of this rain.”
“Right,” Vargard agrees, “It’s…. I have no idea how close it is to night,” he sighs, looking at the rain-darkened skies, “We ride for Fairhaven, and deal with their questions later. They’re… not going to be happy.”
“It wasn’t our fault!” Marwyn protests.
“Marwyn… just, let it go. Let’s wait until we’re warm and dry to debate this,” Vargard admonishes, taking the horse Lesani had handed Cletus.
“Ok,” Marwyn capitulates, looking between the horses and wondering which to ride.
“Come on,” Vargard says, seeing this, and offering a hand. The five, tired, wet, and hungry, being the long journey back to Fairhaven.
The Next Day, Afternoon
Marwyn had slept past noon, being physically and mentally exhausted from the ordeal of the previous day. It was well past midnight when they arrived at the gates, and were it not for Vargard’s commanding tone, they’d likely not have been able to gain entry into the city. But return they did, and Marwyn awoke in the soft bedsheets of The Crowned Leper. How inviting they seemed after days of rough camping.
He retrieved his travel clothes from the innkeep, who had done them the courtesy of drying them by the fire overnight. The rest of Marwyn’s equipment, lute especially, still required attention, but he was far from motivated to take care of them.
“They’re expecting us tonight,” Vargard had told him, and it was with dread that he ate a late meal. Instead, he returned to his room and, seeing Cletus gone somewhere, tries to get some more rest.
Fairhaven Underground, Later
The members of The Split Falchion sit uneasily around a table, in one of the near featureless rooms that made up The Royal Eyes functional headquarters underneath Fairhaven. They’d been ushered there by an agent, no one Vargard recognized, and unceremoniously dumped there without further instruction. The table itself lay bare, though the number of empty chairs (two) was in itself telling.
Heavy footfalls become audible, one person was approaching the room. Eventually, a stout man enters the room, and takes a seat. Despite the disguise, Vargard still easily recognized his contact, and the others assumed similar.
“So…” the man begins awkwardly, “I’d say you were… successful in finding the lycanthrope lair.”
“Drider…” Vargard starts.
“No, no,” Agent Drider interrupts, “I’m sure I put ‘make sure the Thranish retinue is completely wiped out’ somewhere in your mission orders. I mean, not that I’m particularly devastated at the loss of those fanatics, but I’m having a hard time finding justification for it. I don’t imagine the Thranes are going to be too convinced when we told them they decided to go the Eldeen Reaches without sending any other word.” He sighs, and then continues, “Though I suppose it wasn’t a total wash. Radio, get in here.”
A woman enters the room, and takes a seat beside Agent Drider. Dressed as she was, that of an agent of The Royal Eyes, her identity doesn’t fully dawn on the group.
“Doria!?” Lesani exclaims in shock.
“Hey, it is you!” Jorduna says, recognizing the woman with the additional prod.
“That’s actually Agent Radio,” Agent Drider corrects, “Deep cover in Thrane. She was doing admirably well too, until she was killed by lycanthropes. At least, that’s what they’ll eventually rule it as, when no one hears from the purifiers again. If they don’t suspect us, which I don’t doubt they will.”
“But…” Marwyn objects, head spinning slightly, “That guy said they didn’t…”
“Who?” Agent Radio asks, in a flawless Aundairian accent, “I assume you found the remains of my camp. Once you left,” she says, nodding to Lesani, “I knew the mission was all but scrubbed. I threw Triton on a horse, scattered the rest, and set fire to everything. Sorry ‘bout that, but orders were orders.”
“You planned for us failing the mission?” Vargard asks.
“Well, I didn’t plan for it, per se, but it was a contingency. After all, there’s no sense in losing all your assets.”
“So Triton’s mysterious ‘illness’?” Lesani asks suspiciously.
“Hmm?” Agent Radio says, unsure, and then says, “Oh! No, that actually wasn’t me, he’s really sick. Well, sick isn’t exactly the best… we’re about as clueless as Thrane is.”
“But he is important,” Drider adds, “Part of all this was getting him out of Thrane with Radio here. She has a wealth of knowledge, and he’s… something else.”
“I’m sorry if we all don’t have a birds-eye view of the chessboard, Drider,” Vargard protests, taking control of the conversation, “But what exactly is all this leading up to?”
“Glad you asked,” Drider says, withdrawing a wooden tube, and the parchment inside, “Your next mission! You’ve got a train to catch. In Thrane,” he adds, a glint in his eye.
Continued in Part 23, The Great Thrane Robbery – Chariots of Gold