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Broken Beast, Part 2

by Kit Olsen 11 months ago in Fantasy
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The introduction of the Grey Band, and the next portion of the NaNoWriMo project, 2019. Part one available on my page!

Broken Beast, Part 2
Photo by Josipa Juras on Unsplash

Chapter Two

The fortress of the Grey Band was rumored to be impenetrable by even the strongest of forces. Even now, or perhaps more accurately, especially now, as the rain poured down in streams and rivulets, it cut an imposing figure against the otherwise bleak skyline. The dark stone fortress with its wrought iron gates, barred windows, and thick, high walls, loomed threateningly above the rest of the city of Obriesk. The establishment known best for their defense of the city, and of Ambrickeria as a whole, looked much more like a prison than a castle,. Even the bravest souls, and those who remained among the Unbreaking Queen's men, still took pause when passing it. After all, the odd heads mounted to the walls, left rotting and half-eaten by the scavenger birds, did provide a firm enough warning to those who might seek trouble, and a dire enough threat to those who planned upon it.

Vel strode quickly through the courtyard, the rain slicking off of their tri-cornered hat as they crossed the cobbled entry paths. Their steps clicked against them, their cane clicking alongside, and mentally they thanked the gods that they'd had the good sense to finish proofing their boots the day before. As they approached the iron gates leading towards the fortress itself, they locked eyes with the guards above; even as he shouted down, "Who goes there?" the familiar glare was enough to get the gates creaking open.

Soon, warmth, mead, and hopefully better companionship than they'd had all bloody week.

The doors beyond, leading into the fortress, were tall, lined with brass and obviously latched from the inside. The knocker, another strange, monstrous head, slammed against the thick wood, and Vel let their hand fall to their side. Moment later, the sounds of unlocking, unlatching, and the scraping of the crossbeam shook the entryway itself. The door creaked open, stopping as it caught on a final chain.

Madris stood on the other side, a kendimkin on the smaller side of average, her face lined with weathering and age. She locked eyes with the oscuri on the other side of the door. Vel tipped their hat.

"Madris."

"Vel." Her voice creaked nearly as loudly as the door had. "The stars do not seem keen to watch over you tonight."

"Nonetheless I am their watcher." The code slipped easily from their lips. The door shut again, the final chain was withdrawn, and finally opened. Vel stepped inside, slinging their rain-drenched coat off of their shoulders, seeing the door shut right behind them. Madris had already begun the extensive procedures of relocking and latching all of the doors behind them. "Are the rest of the band returned from their hunt?"

Madris nodded. "Caermiell and Daston were in the midst of arguing when they arrived. Tertis was watching, as per usual. Letting them have at it."

"What was their argument about?" Vel asked, hanging their hat upon the stand nearby. Their coat was soon to follow. Their weapons, however, remained at their sides.

"How am I supposed to know?" she grumbled. "The day those two cease having arguments about the slightest inconvenience, I'll know the damned Godkiller's done his job, and we're all soon to follow."

Vel chuckled wryly. "Mads, you and I both know that you'd skin the Godkiller's hide from him before you let the rest of the world go to ruin. And I'd be on the front lines watching you do it."

Madris fought not to look pleased, instead pinching the younger oscuri's cheek with a small affectionate tweak. "Flattery will get you nowhere, shadowkin. Your friends are waiting for you."

They backed away slowly, rubbing their cheek in feigned discomfort. "'Friends' is still putting it a little kindly, Mads." The steps they left on the floor, stone and mosaic intermingled, still clicked and clacked, but they could see the wet footprints where they tread, as they turned to go. "Thank you for the warm welcome."

"Still needing your cane, Vel?"

"Bloody weather's fault. Thank you, Mads."

Without another word, Vel strode through the corridors of the torchlit fortress. The hallways were drafty, and with each gust of wind that blew outside, the lights flickered and danced, illuminating the tapestries and carvings along the walls, and making the images upon them animate.

Vel knew all of these images by heart. They'd learned their tales from a young age, learned to retell the history of the Grey Band nine ways to Griggsday and even then it never seemed like it was enough. The images on the wall were frightening to many. Creatures of strange variety, in the midst of terrible battles. Fearsome warriors and mages fighting these loathsome beasts with fury in their eyes, and conviction in their hearts. The smallest of movements of the tapestries made the creatures' muscles ripple with tension, the flickering lights shining on the faces of those that Vel had called heroes.

They always paused at one of the carvings. Wooden, it stood about as tall as they did, but elevated several feet above the ground, and was twice as wide as they were high. The image on it showed the first members of the Grey Band. It was a group of five, all of the stories told. Five daring men and women, who took on one of the first beings to escape from Regret -- the demon of echoes.

The Grey Band hadn't been trained for such things. They were mercenaries, drawn together by circumstances beyond their control, at the time. They had learned, through trials and adversity, to work together and ultimately proved victorious over the bestial force, though at the cost of one of their own. Those remaining four went on to found the order that Vel now found themselves a... more or less happy part of. It was the four of the Grey Band that had constructed this place, and it was their descendants who paid them respect and honor.

Vel stared at the image a few moments longer, the light catching the echo demon's fangs, radiating off of the shield of the frontlning soldier. The soldier stood, teeth gritted in anticipation for the demon's mighty blow, even as the clawed hand swung downwards toward him. Vel traced their fingers delicately over the soldier's weary face.

All of those stories had to mean something, didn't they?

Their cane went back to clicking down the hall as they strode through the familiar passageways, finally feeling some of the damp chill clearing as they half-limped down the set of stairs that led to the kitchens and the commons. Even now, they could hear the sounds of two voices bickering back and forth.

"--if I'm to be left out for the godsdamned dogs, then why don't you just say it to my face instead of laughing about it behind my back?"

"Daston, you're overreacting."

Vel smiled. Caermiell's voice was gentle and melodic at the worst of times, but now, it sounded exhausted, and almost petty. Dast, on the other hand, sounded bloody frantic.

"I'm just saying, I'd be downright pissed off if you wound up croaking and you're over here laughing about it."

"And I'm only saying that you Tuurimarans are far more superstitious than you ought to be."

"Says the acolyte." Daston's voice was barely a grumble.

"My beliefs have shown plenty of merit thus far, I'd claim. The instant your superstitions start showing some of their own, I'll start taking them seriously."

"Yeah, well. I hope you'll remember those words when I'm bloody six feet underground, and your chanting your little prayers at my bloody funeral."

"Dast see a magpie again?" Vel asked, taking their final few steps into the kitchen. The trio inside looked up to see them enter.

The kitchen was a smallish room, which connected to the commons. The commons themselves were a little more spacious, a few chairs and couches available to rest on, a bookshelf or two lining the walls. But the kitchen always felt more like home, as the fire burned bright in the hearth. Vel reached overhead, removing a mug from the hooks overhead, and set it down on the table before them. Tertis stopped sharpening his axe for a moment, pouring mead from the bottle before him wordlessly into Vel's waiting vessel.

Caermiell smiled, brushing her pale hair from her face, and ran up, embracing the oscuri. Caermiell was young, not only by elven standards, but the standards of regular men as well. She had joined the Band at the age of nineteen, and only three years had passed since then. Her smile warmed Vel's heart, even as the cold metal of her holy symbol pressed into their chest as they took her into their arms, then withdrew.

"Told you, El, you've got to keep those blasted birds away from him." Vel coughed a little bit, finishing limping into the room and sitting down on the nearest stool, across from Tertis. They lifted the mug in a half toast, and Tertis nodded gruffly.

Tertis was far older than the rest of them, though none of them could gather exactly how old he was. From their best guesses, he was somewhere between sixty and eighty, but even that seemed too young at times. He sat at the table now, whetstone in hand, as he sharpened the battleaxe that had seen more years than the young ones all combined. His usual helm and mask rested beside him. His grey hair fell into loose curls that surrounded the small slightly jutting horns, and nearly concealed them entirely. If they weren't being looked for, few would ever see them. Tertis was also well known for his rather characteristic lack of history. The most any of them knew about him was that he'd joined the Band in the old days, finding solace in the group of hunters, and that he'd left behind a human mother and tiefling father.

"They're birds, Vel. I might as well ask them to stop bloody flying. It doesn't help that Dast insists on wearing those trinkets so openly."

"They're not trinkets," he muttered.

Daston was the only human in their quartet. He hadn't come the farthest of all of them. That honor was reserved for Caermiell, who'd traveled from Caerilyth to Tuurimar in search of the Maidens of Adamantine and the Brotherhood of Darksteel. She'd proven lucky enough, and had found security in their ranks for a time, swearing the tenets with Daston, who she'd met there. Daston was older than her, not by much, and had the reddish hair and piercing gaze that often followed the Northern Tuurimaran bloodlines. The two of them fought like cats and dogs more days than not, but in battle were a formidable pair to behold. Currently, he paced back and forth, apparently in the process of polishing his pistol. His scythe sat propped up in the corner of the room.

"They're heirlooms," the two of them said in unison.

"I wouldn't go around calling your Aegis necklace a trinket. That would be rude. So maybe leave off on calling a man's good luck charm a trinket. You have your beliefs and I've got mine."

Vel chuckled lightly. "Did the bird swoop at him?"

"Of bloody course it did!" Dast burst out. "I'm telling you Vel, they've all got it out for me. Every last one of them. The Magpie herself looked at me the damn day I was born and said, 'That one? Oh, I've got a special death planned out for him. Something formidable and ill-timed with a crowd of cheering spectators.' " He wrung his hands. "And then she has to go and make a godsdamned point of reminding me of this fact at any opportunity she gets!"

Caermiell rolled her eyes. "If you didn't wear your charms so openly, then maybe they'd stop swooping at you. They just like shiny things."

"Shiny things, my ass. I'm telling you these fuckers have it out for me."

Vel smirked, scratching at the back of their neck. "I'm sure. Seems a shame though. The mighty Daston D'Puerei brought low by a tiny bird. One of the greatest hunters the Band has ever known. And laid to rest at such a young age... by a magpie."

Dast started to protest, but Caermiell interjected. "Truly, Daston, it makes very little sense to me. You have your charms for a reason, correct?"

"Yes, but--"

"Then shouldn't they do their job and keep you from getting swept away by unruly bird gods?"

"Well, theoretically, but--"

"And you are certainly aware that Tertis, Vel, and myself won't let anything ill happen to you on our watch, right?"

"Of course I bloody well know that."

"Then perhaps you should cease your worries for a time and wait until said bird gods finish acquiring their crowd of cheering spectators, hm?"

Vel chuckled as Daston was left stammering after her. Caermiell slid onto the stool nearest to them, and leaned forward with interest. "Did you have any luck tracking down a wayguide?"

They sighed, cradling the mug of mead in their hands and letting the heat of the hearth fire sink into their tired bones. "Not nearly as much of a lead as I was hoping to return with. I'd heard a few rumors of a virmuso, and started trying to track him down... but last he's been seen was several months ago with a party that never returned."

"What about that other one... the one the Borealis crew had last Greenleaf?"

Vel laughed. "It was a miracle the Borealis crew made it back out of Folly with all their limbs in tact and not seven ways in debt to an archfey. Burton barely got them there, much less back out, and frankly his reputation precedes him at this point. So, no, we're not working with Burton."

Tertis grunted his approval. "Burton's less than ideal."

"Who else have you got then?" Daston asked. "We've got to have something, right? Or at the least something more than this."

Vel sipped absently at their mead. "I may have one more lead. Risky, bit of a gamble. I'm not entirely certain the Band will fund it."

"Who is it?" Caermiell asked.

"I've heard a few rumors of a tabaxi. Goes by Haem? Vothian."

"Is he reliable?"

"From what I've heard. Not exactly... friendly most of the time, but he's gotten people where they need to go. And the rumors say he can find an entry point within fifty miles of any given starting place."

The group fell oddly silent at this news.

"Vothian?" Tertis repeated.

"From what they say. Dresses like one, at the least."

Tertis nodded. "Cloak of patches?"

Vel turned to look at Tertis with interest. "You know of him?"

"Heard of him. You're right. Ain't cheap." He shrugged.

"Why won't the Band give us the funds for him? Is he that expensive?"

"He's that much of a wildcard. Rumors say he'll always get you where you need to go, but getting back is something else entirely."

"Then should we really risk it?" Daston asked, his brow furrowed. "I mean, there have to be some others around..."

"None that I've found along the entire southern coast," Vel grumbled. The rest of the group looked at them silently. "The elves might have their own wayguides among the Weald, but... with Caeresti blood still fresh among our ranks..."

Caermiell punched their arm playfully. "You don't have to worry about me."

"I'm not, I'm worrying about us. You're one of us, so you count." Their eyes unfocused and they drew in the warm air, fragrant with soon to be eaten food. "Frankly, I think this Haem character might be our best bet. After all, it's not like he--"

"Not like who?"

The deep baritone voice startled all of them, with the exception of Tertis, and all of them jumped to their feet, turning to face its source. A dark-skinned human, eyes keen on the rest of the group, stepped forward off of the stair landing and into their midst. The dove grey robes he wore dragged loose trails after him, pieces of ceremonial armor still worn around his arms, on his shoulders, and over his chest. The sigil of the Grey Band marked the chest piece, as it marked all of their weapons and armor. He smiled warmly as they jumped to attention.

"Commander Aboresst."

"At ease."

The four of them withdrew their salutes. Tertis sank back into his seat. "Pleasure to see you, Commander." Vel extended their hand and shook Aboresst's own, smiling.

"You as well, Velich. Mads informed me you'd returned. Your timing is divinely inspired, as far as I can tell."

"My timing, sir?"

"The Band has a job for you. All of you."

"What kind of a job?" Daston inquired.

"Bounty. Unknown monster of sorts found among the Ekhor Weald. Clan Davagh wants it dealt with, and they're paying well."

"The druids?" Vel asked. "They've never done business with us before, why start now?"

"I'm hardly one to complain if the druidic clans are interested in our services, Velich, perhaps you could take your cue from me on that one?" He looked at them pointedly, and the oscuri quickly bit their lip.

"I'm sorry if this seems trivial to you, sir, I am simply seeking the protection of our best interest. Are you sure that our group is best suited to this task? We do have a member of the Caeresti in our ranks and traveling to the wood elves would be viewed by some as a suicide mission."

"I believe that your group is perfectly suited to the task." Aboresst pressed his lips together. "If anything, they're an ideal fit."

"For what reason, sir?"

Aboresst glanced to Daston, then to Vel, the smallest flickering gaze, before looking to the rest of the group. "Perhaps you would wish to speak to our contact yourself?"

The four of them looked to one another with the barest hint of suspicion before turning back to Vel, who motioned up the stairs. "By all means."

They set the mead back on the table, barely touched. Drunkenness would have to wait for another time.

+++++++++

"Shadows, you're certain?"

Bati stared up at them, as he forced himself out of his chair. His legs were well wrapped and braced in odd branchlike splints, his arms wiry with muscle as he pushed himself upward with the crutches.

"I know what I saw. Or at the least what Duur saw before he died. These things were dangerous. They killed him and they nearly killed me, Urikian himself knows why they didn't."

"These shadows, you said they had... sentience, minds of their own. Teeth and claws, but no eyes."

"Yes, ser." The look on the wood elf's face was nearly exasperated. "As I've told your commander. Perhaps he thought there was something you'd be capable of doing, given your own roots?"

Vel fought to bite back a cutting comment or three, but held their tongue. "There is a possibility, yes. Perhaps some family history that could aid in this problem."

"I'm sorry... Bati?" Daston interjected. "You said... there was a shifter involved?"

"Your terms are strange to me. You're referring to the hunter?" Bati asked. Daston nodded vigorously. "She calls herself Avi. Or called. We've seen no sign of her since that night. She ran off into the woods and had not been seen since, at least not with her skin. Those who attempted to find out more about these shadows found themselves instead confronting the hunter in all of her rage. She too is a threat, though our chieftain would sooner know that the shadows are dealt with."

Tertis watched as Bati spoke, closely examining the man's face. As the last few words were spoken, his rusty voice entered the conversation. "You’re lying. They sent you to deal with her." The words were uncomfortable, and the silence that followed them was more so. Daston locked eyes with Tertis harshly, but he paid little attention. "Why protect her?"

"I'm... I'm not protecting..."

"A shifter of any sort is a threat on its own. Sentient shadow beasts that have not injured your village since that night? They seem far less important. Why protect her?"

Bati stammered and stuttered for a few moments before sighing. "Duurani fell protecting me from these shadows. He was always soft for the hunter and took care of her. All I know is that as he stopped screaming, I saw her over his body, then she took off. But the shadows followed after her and left me alone."

The elf bent his head. "I do not know what else to tell you. I do not protect her for my sake nor for the sake of the village, she is a threat and must be dealt with. But I ask that you deal with the shadows first for the sake of the one who died to protect me. Such is the will of Llowyln and so it should be."

Silence fell over the commander's office once more, the commander still sitting across from the elven man and now the party of hunters that stood before him. Caermiell cleared her throat.

"I know little of your gods, but their will acts in accordance with my own, and thus I would have no troubles helping."

Tertis grunted again. "A hunt is a hunt."

"I'm as on board as I can be," Daston replied, taking a step back from Bati. "Though I will say this shifter's got me nervous."

"No more nervous than the rest of us, Dast," Vel responded. They stepped forward. "We understand that your clan plans to pay us for this venture?"

"Handsomely, in whichever currency you should see fit."

The oscuri nodded and smiled, the smallest of fangs jutting from their mouth as they did so. "Then we are agreed. Shadow monsters or shifters alike, we will find what's been troubling your clan and deal with it appropriately. Vothian crescents are preferred." They turned to Aboresst, and smiled. "Thank you for the opportunity, Commander." Then, turning to the rest of the group, they nodded, and left. "We've got research to do."

Tertis hung back for the smallest of moments, locking eyes with Bati once more before following after Daston. Dast refused to look at him.

"I'm sorry I said it. I had to be sure."

"I know."

"They're dangerous."

"You think I don't know that?" Daston laughed.

"Shifters are... tricky. They're not like you."

"Not like me, huh?" He smiled briefly. His teeth, for a moment, seemed almost too sharp for his mouth and he quickly tallied the days until the next full moon. "Tertis, we're as alike as two stars. Soon as I see her, I'll talk her down. We'll take care of it."

"You are a lycanthrope, it's different." The old tiefling shook his head, his voice gravelly. "A druid is a man within a beast. A lycanthrope is a beast and a man at peace, or at the least you have found your peace with both. A shifter is a beast. There is no reasoning with them."

"None?"

"None." He took Daston's shoulder in his large rough hand, and turned him around to face him. "Hear me. If you want your bird gods to save you for the grand death they have planned, strike first. Once she acts, it is over for you."

Daston attempted to speak but instead watched as Tertis passed him on the staircase, leaving him staring after him mouth slightly agape. The journey to the Ekhor Weald would take days, and he only hoped that whatever battles with this... hunter, would take place at night. And that they'd all be smart enough to stand back when the time came.

+++++++++

Caermiell took a deep breath, resting her head against Vel's chest. They'd been gone for what felt like weeks, but the dark in the bedchambers around the two of them now held them both like a warm embrace.

The Caeresti were rarely, if ever, accepting of unions outside the elves. The years had never been kind to them, even as the world changed around them and left them behind. Their isolation often led to misunderstanding. Despite this, any of the Caer valued information from whatever points it came from. While their match had been potentially unorthodox in the eyes of most everyone, she'd had her orders when she left at fourteen for Ambrickeria. Finding any and all information she could about the Grey Band, either within the organization, or by meeting those inside of it.

She still didn't know what they wanted to know about them. She knew why they'd picked her at the time. She was a child. She could hardly argue with the orders that they'd given; she was unassuming among the elves, but her influence anywhere outside of the stony walls of the Caer would cause men to fall on their own swords rather than let harm come to her.

She had her "in" through Daston initially. They'd sworn the tenets together when she was sixteen, and found themselves blood siblings within the Brotherhood. The devices, enchanted and shardtouched, that the two of them learned to work with, had provided plenty of fuel for the Caer as she sent her messages secretly, and silently, relying on her magics to do so. She'd investigated what she could regarding some of the more secretive doctrines even as she operated under the most open among them. But as they left from the headquarters of Adamantine and Steel, the two of them, brother and sister now in all respects apart from the purely biological, they found their way, at her nudging and urging and arguing towards the Gray Band.

Then she met Vel.

They were young as well, ambitious, bright. They were almost certain to acquire a command soon, a group of their own. Tertis, it was rumored, was planning on retiring from the Grey Band and needed a successor; Vel appeared to be the most likely candidate. Caermiell and Daston were relatively new and untested, but with their pieces of artificery, their skills in combat, and the like, they volunteered... or more specifically, Caermiell volunteered both of them to the hunt. Vel seemed surprised, but grateful for the new company.

She'd had to get past her initial distaste, of course. After all, it made little sense to her as to why an organization comprised of monster hunters would employ a Hubrisian half-spawn. She was not quick to forget her history, and the oscuri had plenty of history that followed them. But this one, Velich, showed a knack for the art of tracking, and they proved to be an effective and charismatic leader. Tertis had still come along to keep an eye out, see how they did, of course. But they were more than capable of holding their own.

She shifted again, hearing their heartbeat under her ear. Their hand caressed her hair, brushing it back from her face and smoothing it down her back.

"You're restless tonight," they murmured, eyes still closed and head resting on the pillow.

"I am thinking." Not a lie. Never a lie.

"What are you thinking about?"

"You."

The smallest of chuckles escaped their lips. "What an unfortunate turn of events. You should find something more pleasant to think about, perhaps."

She nestled in more firmly against their chest as if stubbornly refusing to believe them. "How's your leg?"

"Stiff with all the rain. It'll be fine as soon as we reach the Weald, I'm sure." They stretched and shrugged. "But I think you're not being honest with me. Not wholly."

She gave an appropriately shocked gasp and managed to conjure a vaguely injured expression.

"I'm simply saying you have a tendency towards follytruths. That's all. And you seem... distracted."

"As if a new hunt against eyeless shadow monsters would distract me from sleep in any way."

The oscuri shifted again, starting to stroke her hair softly again. "Are you frightened?"

"Not particularly. Just curious. What they are, where they came from. The usual." She smiled lightly. "I'm more excited than anything. And glad you'll be on this hunt with us."

Vel smiled back, glancing down to the elven woman in their embrace, and held her tight for a moment. "I'm glad I'll be on the hunt too. It's been too long since we all went together. Wayguides be damned, they can wait for another time."

The silence stretched between them for a few moments. Then Caermiell slowly pushed herself into a sitting position, starting to reclothe herself. Vel watched, curiously. "My questions are likely better answered in a library than in your bed, Velich. And I have little need for sleep."

"Since when are you the practical one?" Vel laughed, nestling back under the covers.

"Since we're leaving in the morning to track down things that can't be tracked." She winked, wrapping the robe around herself, and pausing by the side of the bed. She stroked their knee lightly, and it twitched under her touch. A good sign, showed there was still some degree of life in the nerves and sinews, even if the limp was still there. "I'll see to that knee once more before we leave tomorrow morning. In the meantime, sleep. You're far less pleasant to be around when you don't."

It was Vel's turn to look slightly offended, but they burrowed into the blankets with a resigned sigh. "If you're certain."

"I am."

"Read well."

"Rest well."

She planted a kiss on their forehead, turning away from the bed and leaving Vel to their own devices.

Caermiell had a mission. One that had been impressed into her consciousness for the past twenty years. That mission could not be jeopardized.

Not even for love.

Her footsteps padded towards the library, as she went to scour their histories, to uncover their secrets and preserve what information she could. She did not bother to glance behind her.

+++++++++

The rain didn't let up. Vel felt the cold and damp seeping into their leg even further as the four Grey Band hunters, with Bati in tow, had rattled their way out of Obriesk in the carriage that would take them, first out through the gates, to the midway stop of Caphar. From there it would be traveling on foot into the Ekhor Weald. The forests of Ambrickeria were old. Far too old and overgrown for anyone to actually make their way through them in anything with wheels. Sometimes horses could make their way through, but for the most part, it was considered wiser to simply travel on one’s own two legs.

For the moment, however, convenience was greatly preferred.

Caermiell was plying Bati with questions, to a degree that made Vel almost laugh. They wondered briefly if she'd found any information at all the night before, but knew the answer was a likely "yes." She always found information if she was looking for it. She also, however, was rarely satisfied with the simple "yes"s or "no"s to be found in pages and accounts. She always looked firsthand where she could.

"Now, how did these things fight?" She held an open notebook in her hands, filled with notes she must have taken the night before.

"Claws. But they didn't feel like claws. They felt like ice." Bati shuddered. "Ice running through the veins and passing into muscle and bone."

Vel could practically feel it themselves as they described the sensation; a chill ran up and down their spine. "And then wasting?" they asked for clarification.

Bati nodded. "The strength sapped from me. I could barely stand." He gestured to his legs which still had the wild looking wooden braces wrapped around them, and the canes that rested alongside him. "I'm still not entirely certain how they did so. It felt as if my muscles shriveled away from the bone, the skin from the muscle." He pushed the cloak he was wearing off of his arms and shoulders, and then unwrapped the many bandages from his forearm, making the skin visible. Apart from a few tattoos, there were marks like claw scratches, but blackened, as if the skin had entirely crumbled away, or charred.

Caermiell extended her hand as the carriage hit a particularly large bump in the road, and nearly sent her flying. She quickly steadied herself and then asked quietly, "May I take a look? I know a little magic and could perhaps be able to--"

Bati interrupted her. "I have no need for your magic. Thank you. These wounds are a reminder of my failures among my people, a reminder to myself of what has passed. I would have them heal on their own."

She slid back into her seat. Dast, sitting next to her, glanced at the wounds on his arm as well. "May I take a closer look at them? Not to heal, just... curious."

Bati grimaced but nodded and held out his arm, showing the blackened scratches. Decayed and rotting skin, now scabbing over, evidence of heavy poulticing and herbal patches remaining to help mend the skin where possible. The bandages were crusted over as well with mixtures of herbs, and pus. Thankfully infections had been kept at bay, but it certainly didn't look pretty.

Daston furrowed his brow. "Bati, the scratches puncture outwards... the skin wasn't broken in any..."

"I know." Bati's voice was quiet and tired. "Like i said. Passing into muscle and bone. Then clawing their way out spreading decay as they went."

The pages flipped rapidly in Caermiell's notes as she looked for further backup claims. Vel and Tertis made eye contact for the briefest moment. Tertis's eyes did not seem keen to leave the oscuri's own. "Necrosis." His voice was gruff as usual.

"Such things aren't... uncommon among the Hubrisian monsters."

Daston blinked at Vel. "And you know this..."

"I have my reasons."

He leaned back in his seat again, feeling it rattle underneath him, and he nearly bumped his head against the wall. "Do you think we'll be needing that Wayguide sooner rather than later?"

"It's possible. Again, I think we'll be better off finding them first. See what we can learn. If they're prevalent in the Ekhor Weald then the ways cannot be far off."

"The ways?" The druid looked to the two of them. "You're speaking of the Betwixt?"

"Shadowy monsters? Seems likely. We had reasons enough for finding a Wayguide prior, but depending on how this goes, we might well need to find one a little more quickly."

The carriage rolled to a stop, the sounds of the horses' hooves clipping and clopping slower until they shifted in place. The driver whistled and clicked on the other side, muttering "Whoa," in low hushed tones that hummed through the walls. Caermiell looked to the windows, pushing aside the curtains and peering out into the grey, drizzly afternoon. "Why've we stopped?"

"Don't know." Daston stood up, opening the door, and peering out to the driver. "What's up?"

"Roads too muddy here. Wheels are like as not to get stuck." The driver's voice was nearly as rusty sounding as Tertis's as he muttered in response,

"Of bloody course they are."

"How far out from Caphar are we?"

"'Bout seven miles."

Vel rested their head against the back of their seat and sighed. This was going to be a more interesting day than they'd bargained for. Caermiell looked to them with concern in her eyes. "Are you well enough to walk?"

They muttered in turn, "I'll be fine, though it'll likely be slow going. I'm more worried about our friend here."

"You needn't be worried on my behalf." Bati shook his head. "I can... turn into something for a while, I'm sure. I'll just need one of you to carry my crutches."

"And we're more than willing to do so, Master Druid." The oscuri looked to Daston pointedly as he pulled his now dampened head back inside the carriage. Daston nodded, shaking his hair free of the droplets in an almost doglike way, splattering both Tertis on one side and Caermiell on the other. Caermiell punched his shoulder with annoyance.

"Are we sure this will be wise?" Caermiell interjected once more.

"We need to get to the Ekhor Weald one way or another," Tertis said, starting to shrug his coat and hat back into position.

"Exactly. The walk will be slow going but isn't likely to delay us more than a day. We'll still reach Caphar tonight. We'll be to the Weald no later than Griggsday."

"Griggsday?" Daston's voice caught in his throat.

"Yes, Dast, Griggsday. We'll be fine." Vel's voice was smooth and did a well enough job concealing the amount of fear that rose in their throat as the words escaped them. All but Bati gave Daston a similarly pointed look. They finished throwing their coats on, preparing to leave. "And for you, Master Druid?"

"I pray you all will oblige me here. May I ride with one of you?"

"Er... how would that be, sir?" Daston asked.

As they watched, the wood elf changed before their eyes. Where once sat a tired looking wood elf, now scurried a small, brownish mouse. The patterns of bandages and tattoos seemed to have transformed themselves into markings along the fur. The crutches were left behind.

Caermiell squealed, though whether with revulsion or delight, Vel couldn't tell initially. But she extended a hand to the creature, who scrambled onto it without much hesitation. She quickly offered him one of her inner pockets, and he paused for only a few moments before settling himself inside it. The rest of them vacated the carriage, finding their way out into the pouring rain and retrieving their weapons and belongings, still wrapped in the oilcloth, from the roof of the vehicle. The rain wicked off of the thick coats and hats, but the cold remained, chilling to the bone. With their belongings gathered, they began trudging through the thick mud.

Even as Vel wrested the tip of their cane out of a particularly muddy patch, they smiled weakly. Convenience, as preferred as it might be, was apparently overrated.

They only hoped their estimates were accurate.

Fantasy

About the author

Kit Olsen

Queer poet, short fiction author, and long-time storyteller of all varieties. Feel free to stick around and see if anything catches your fancy!

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