"I saw that he was not a man," Calalan Tamry once wrote, on why he moved from Lake Encarthan to the Five Mountains Kingdom. He had seen one of the fae. And I knew his warning. I thought I had it firmly in my mind. And maybe there was nothing I could do here. But I know I didn't truly understand until today…
As we prepared to leave Chastel we discussed our possibilities. I’d talked to Daniela and Florin about who else was still alive from the Lodge. In the dim shadows of their room, still bound, Daniela whispered, “We Draenor Wolfblood and Vaena Yringor just before they went out looking for the treant. You know, the one where Elena Midvale fell to her death. That’s all we know. Haven’t had contact from them since.” I wasn’t sure if I was reading into them what I wanted to see, but I thought I detected some hint of sadness. When I asked them about how to wound Papa Bordgibash, they were strangely forthcoming. “The fae would know how to do it, if any such weakness exists.” The fae, mysterious denizens of Shudderwood. I considered the research I’d done on fae before coming here last year. And Arvindhal, that regal being I encountered once I’d killed the demonic boar. He was enchanting, but I knew the fae were alien beings one should engage carefully.
“Or,” Florin offered, “You could seek out the werewolves of Shudderwood. They love to to fight in the local boxing competitions of the Shudderwood villages and particularly love Morcei’s.” I considered this. They have inhabited the forest for a millennia and though lycanthropes are seen as spawn of Lamashtu, I knew enough about them through Lodge stories and folk story to know the werewolves of Shudderwood were closer to fae creatures of the wild. Either the fae or the werewolves might also know more about how the use the tainted hearts of Papa’s lieutenants safely. I returned to the others and laid our options out, intent on thinking this through. Our next course of action could very well decide the fate of all our company and all the inhabitants of the region. We needed cool heads.
Aetherton argued we should seek out each of three villages in Shudderwood, Morcei first among them, and to kill each of the three remaining lieutenants to use all four hearts more safely. It was a fine plan, magically sound, but it would take days in the least. Probably a week or more, and in the mean time many would die and Papa Bordgibash would grow. Sulayn quietly urged us to seek out the treant, “the elder race” as he called it. I could see some shadow of his sylvan upbringing playing behind his eyes, something I’d only seen in his stories of Greengold’s hippogryphs. Halda remained unsure, but she indicated interest in these fae or werewolves – what weakness they might be able to provide. And Vargan, of course, was ready to take the fight to Papa immediately. Barring that he thought we should seek out the werewolves.
I suggested a plan that would marry efficiency and thoroughness. We could strike out into the forest, hunting for Papa with all the show that might impress the fae masters of the hunt, and I could lead us to where I last saw the treant a year ago. There we could speak to the treant if it still survived and it might give us some insight into where the fae are or Papa Bordgibash. From there we could travel to Morcei which would be less than a day’s travel. If we had found no better solution or aid, we could begin to cut away at Papa’s lieutenants as Aetherton suggested. Inwardly I worried that if it came to that, even more people of Ustalav would die.
All agreed. I shared what I knew of how to attract the fae of Shudderwood. “One must lead a great hunt through their lands and impress them with its spectacle. Pomp and circumstance. Horns and dogs. A noble’s hunt.” I looked to Aetherton and saw that he grasped my meaning quickly and set about gathering instruments from town, and some from the dead we’d killed a couple nights ago around the Mother of Nurses.
The Hunt, In Shudderwood
The next morning, I prepared Tracker’s Scent for our trip and took us onto the hunter’s paths I’d followed a year ago. Their oozing thorns twisted close to us menacingly, and everything looked foreign in the dim overgrowth and mist, but somehow I managed to keep us on track. Sulayn warned Vargan not to eat the juicy fruit, the “blessed gifts of Papa” as Vargan called them. More than once Aetherton helped me find the tributary we were supposed to be following. On the way we discovered a single stag. Aetherton directed Sulayn to blow the horns and beat the bushes and Vargan roared. I shot but only wounded the creature. Halda sent electricity through the fog and lit the stag up, nearly splitting it into pieces with her bolts.
Moments later, the real test came. A herd came barreling down upon us. Vargan, took an unexpected pity on the creatures and tried to wrestle them into submission and leave them alive, but I called out to the others, “It’s a challenge. Let none pass.” And so we slaughtered the majestic beasts, Vargan roaring in lament. Dimly I was aware of the carnage and not particularly pleased with it, but as far as grim work, we’ve done grimmer. Sulayn’s large polearm swung in deadly arcs, bringing stag after stag crumpling down, spraying the forest with their blood. Halda sent fearsome bolts into several others who nearly made it past, their bodies rupturing from the jolts. Aetherton met his with deadly grace, stabbing and dodging. I shot a couple down with my few mundane arrows, but found myself clipped and on my back. Vargan let out a hard laugh at my carelessness until he too was clipped and sent staggering into a bush. I flicked Quickness into my hand and sprayed it onto my shoulder. In a blink I was up and shot the one that clipped me, bringing it down, and then sprung ahead of the last to shoot it square in the forearm, just as I had the boar a year ago. It came down crashing at my feet.
Moments later the will-o-wisp emerged. It spoke with Arvindhal’s voice and gave us a new task. Find the werewolves outside Morcei and aid them. I told the wisp we would accept Arvindhal’s task.
We continued without much rest and soon found the treant’s spot. It remained, more alone than ever. Placing my forehead against it I felt its tremendous wisdom, and shared its vision – of a black lodge in the forest, of fae masters of the hunt trapped outside, unable to enter and to finish Bordgibash. They needed someone else, someone of this world. They could not leave this plane, but we could. And then I felt the great sadness of the elder race, alone here, its world ill and dying, forsaken here. It …appreciated my presence. As an old friend. I suddenly found myself ashamed that I had left it alone for so long, and let all this happen to it. And my world. This land. Its people. Its history. So much irreplaceable memory and substance in my old friend.
I promised to return when the work was done.
When I finally pulled away I saw Vargan and Halda chatting about me, Vargan with a smile in his eyes, and Sulayn eyeing me inquisitively. I told them what I’d seen and my theory: the Ascanor Lodge was the black lodge of the vision, but it was in a shadow realm. The mists and Papa Bordgibash’s influence had made a sort of pocket realm. We discussed going straight to the lodge. Sulayn produced a letter from a philosopher and revolutionary in the Palatinates inviting him to meet him at the Ascanor Lodge. So he would be able to get it. I would likely be able to pose as a servant again, as I once did to get inside, but that wouldn’t help the others. But Aetherton said he was no longer a noble and he would be unable to get it. It was the first I’d heard of it, though I do remember him alluding to it when we all met up in Ardis a couple weeks ago. Apparently something more serious had happened in Versex of the past several months to discredit him. But at the moment he seemed unwilling to discuss it, so we decided to stick to our plan.
It was approaching nightfall, and I remembered the town fights started after sunset and lasted no later than midnight. We would have to move. Outside Morcei, we heard wolves howling…
It wasn’t long before we found them. Just two made themselves visible, but we had heard more. Their leader, Fargas pushed forward toward Halda. He smelled their blood on her. Sulayn stepped in the way, but he was shoved backward by his massive arm. Vargan stepped forward then and the two snarled, grappled each other, muscles straining, like two stags locking antlers, neither giving way. For a moment, one got the edge, then the other found some supernatural reserve and turned it over. Then again they were locked in equal strength. Until at last they released each other, two giants, smiling ferociously at each other.
Fargas swore and growled low at Vargan. “You should discipline your pack mate.” He looked sideways at Halda, “For her indiscretion in the village outside Chastel – how she ate my brothers and sisters. If she can not control herself, she must be disciplined.” Vargan hesitated, and in that hesitation he may have been thinking about that moment two years ago in Versex when he and Halda nearly became enemies. I saw Vargan wrestle with the idea, worse than his match with Fargas. In that uneasy silence, I stepped in.
“I will suffer her punishment for her.” And then I added with biting insolence, to improve the show, “After all, I am partly to blame.” I glanced at Fargas, then back to Vargan. “I didn’t kill them fast enough.”
Halda tried to step in, face red, she screamed, “If you’re going to do it…” But Vargan seized his opportunity and threw a massive fist straight into my jaw. It was like getting hit with a tree limb, and it sent me staggering. I looked up, vision swimming, but stayed as steady as I could. And nodded to Vargan, who returned the nod, barely perceptibly.
Fargas satisfied Vargan and Fargas discussed what next, but they were clearly unskilled in such cooperation. Fargas and his pack would slaughter all of Morcei to kill the lieutenant. Vargan hesitated, but he could see our anxiety, but he was caught between choices. I pulled him briefly aside and said, “Vargan, I hope you know there are things I respect about you, things I disagree with, but respect. And I don’t ask of you. I can not go in and murder the people of Morcei.” He grunted. “Like the babies…”
“Don’t mention them again!” He glowered at me. “I will never forgive Sulayn for that.”
“I know. I know. I only mention it because I knew how much they mattered. Even if I disagreed with you…” and then more quietly, barely a whisper, “agreed with Sulayn that it had to be done.”
“I know,” he responded sullenly.
When Vargan stepped back into the clearing with me, Sulayn watched the discussion a little further, more posturing than conversation. Then he suggested, “Look, Fargas, we obviously want the same things. Why don’t we help each other.” We got them to agree to work together to kill the lieutenant. But it was clear they would do it their way. Their appeared no way around the impasse. Something I am sure Arvindhal knew when he sent us.
“We could do it cleanly, and if we can’t, then you can kill the lieutenant, Nanny Red.” Vargan looked at me irritated that I’d spoken out of line. This was his lead. But the words were spoken and couldn’t be taken back.
“A competition then!” Fargas roared with excitement. “Yes! We go now!” I grimaced and looked at Vargan. We had to move fast. I could already hear the wolves moving through the underbrush.
Nanny Red & Morcei
…we had a clean plan, to come at the most unguarded angle, to avoid engaging the crowd of children. We would avoid Nanny Red’s, once known as Louise, her abominations. They looked like smaller Uncle Teddys. Halda would take the form of the dragon and I would even spray her with the Quickened mixture. She would grab Nanny Red and we would escape. We only needed Nanny Red. We heard the wolves howl and knew we had to move. Damn them, they gave us no time!
But Nanny changed shaped and melted into the crowd of children. I shot an arrow of blessed water and very likely mortally wounded a child, desperately trying to flush her out, but the foul thing hid. Aetherton, Vargan, and Sulayn closed the distance – Sulayn bounding past children off walls, and I could see our plan toppling slowly, like a tower slowly crumbling. Brilliantly, Halda roared to scare the children, and I held my breath. But the children all cowered around each other, their fear of Nanny Red or their delusion, too powerful.
And then I saw the fire come down from the sky. And burn them all, their screams echoing off the village walls, their tiny fingers reaching for mercy. Only Nanny Red remained, amidst her charnel house. Halda, as the dragon, grabbed Nanny Red, but she swung in a large loop back onto the square. The wolves broke into the town square, fighting the abominations, only to be met by her hellish flames. They too burned, and though they scrambled, still charred, she gave them no respite, Quickened as she was with my mixture. She burned them again. And again.
…When it was mostly done in the square, Nanny Red with arrows in her and large slices from either Vargan or Sulayn, I can’t remember, the remaining werewolves continued. Halda had fled. I looked around while Vargan carved up Nanny Red right there in the hovel we killed her inside. I saw him. Arvindhal, at the edge of town, smiling with satisfaction.
“Call them off,” I called hoarsely, through the dragon smoke, meaning the wolves slaughtering the children. “It’s over.” Arvindhal merely shook his head, giving a low chuckle. I met eyes with him, knowing him, truly knowing him, for what he was.