I woke slowly, climbing, with effort, back to consciousness. Something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what, but it was very, very wrong. And it was inside my head. I opened my eyes.
I was lying on my side, so the first thing I saw was what was next to me. It was a corpse. The throat was ripped out, and the body was covered in shallow claw marks. I gasped.
“Looks like he’s awake,” I heard a voice say. A pair of feet entered my view. The owner of the feet kicked me, rolling me onto my back. The voice’s owner was a red haired dwarf carrying a large shovel. “Pretty little thing, isn’t he? For a dirty beast.”
Another face entered my line of sight. This man was blond and human, with his arm in a sling. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he complained.
The dwarf looked at him. “Do what?”
The human sighed. “Kick him. And calling him a dirty beast is a bit cruel.”
I blinked up at them. “Where am I?” I asked.
The human frowned. “You don’t remember?”
Now that I thought of it, I did remember. Edgemont. A small farming community. I’d come here three days ago, and I’d…
That corpse. I was the one who’d ripped out his throat. The claw marks were mine. A feeling welled up in me, one I’d never felt before. I wished I hadn’t done it. What did humans call that? Regret. I felt regret. And guilt, too. Guilt hurt.
It hadn’t just been that corpse, either. I’d killed the entire town. Men, women… and children. All of them. I’d enjoyed it. And this wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this. The pain I’d caused. The people I’d slaughtered. It ate away at me inside, like some sort of parasite, tearing at my soul.
I struggled to stand, but my arms were bound tightly to my sides and my legs were bound to each other. “What did you do to me?”
The human placed a gentle hand on my forehead. “Calm down. It’ll be alright.”
“What did you do to me?” I demanded. My eyes slid closed. “Oh, gods. It hurts. What have I done?”
“Looks like it worked,” the dwarf said, his voice unsympathetic.
“I know it did,” the human said. “I can see his aura. It’s as white and pure as fresh snow. Whiter than yours, actually. And mine.”
I opened my eyes. “What did you do?” I pleaded. I felt tears in my eyes. “Please, what did you do?”
The human—a cleric, I realized—sighed. “I purified you.”
“Can you undo it?” I asked, hoping against hope that this nightmare would go away.
The cleric shook his head. “No. Don’t worry. The pain will pass, in time.”
“When?” I asked, my voice full of desperation.
The cleric shook his head. “I don’t know.”
I let out a quiet sob. I didn’t know how much more of this I could endure.
“If we hadn’t done this, we’d have had to kill you,” the cleric explained. “Surely this is better than being dead?”
I looked away. “I’m not so sure about that.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then the cleric spoke. “I’m sorry. I really am.” After another pause, the cleric spoke again. “Do you have a name?”
“Enko,” I said. “I’m Enko.”
The cleric nodded. “I’m Devon. The dwarf you met is Herkon, and there’s an elf wizard named Esthera, and a gnome fire cleric named Thender.”
I vaguely remembered hearing some of their names when I’d fought them. Ah yes, the fight. I’d done some serious damage. I winced. Then Devon had bound me. I’d been helpless on the ground, snarling and writhing. He’d bent over me, and put his hand to my forehead. The next thing I remembered was waking up next to the corpse.
An elf appeared above me. Esthera. “Are you going to unbind him?” she asked.
Devon blinked. “Yes. Right.” He looked down at me. “I’m going to let you move again. Take it easy, ok?” He gestured, and said a few strange sounding words.
The spell holding my limbs in place lifted. Slowly, I stood, and looked around me. It was a bleak sight. The corpses of the villagers had been lined up in rows on the ground outside the village. A gnome, who must have been Thender, was going from corpse to corpse, giving them the last rites.
I looked from villager to villager. Some of them I clearly remembered killing. I’d reveled in it. Worse, somehow, were the bodies that I didn’t remember killing, the ones lost in the exhilarating blur of the hunt. Had the taking of innocent lives meant that little to me, that I could barely remember it?
The elf thrust a shovel into my hands. “I’m getting blisters. You dig.”
The Devon gasped. “Esthera! That’s mean.” He turned to me. “Here, give me the shovel. I’ll take Esthera’s turn if she doesn’t want to dig.” He glared at Esthera.
I resisted his efforts to take the shovel. “I’ll dig. It’s the least I can do for them.” Perhaps it would ease my guilt to give the dead their rest.
The human frowned. “As your healer, I insist—”
“You’re not my healer,” I interrupted. “You’re not my anything.” I turned to the big hole where the red haired dwarf was digging.
As I pushed the shovel into the earth, the dwarf grunted. “You’d better not be getting any ideas.”
I frowned. “Like what?”
The dwarf’s shovel bit into the dirt. “If you ever even think about killing anyone else, I will kill you, and to hell with Devon’s little experiment.”
I looked over at him. “I won’t. I swear. It already hurts so much. I don’t want to make it worse.”
There was a puddle of water at the bottom of the hole. I gave myself a once over. I was in my human form. My appearance was that of a man with black, curly hair down to my shoulders and a chin full of stubble. It was always stubble, never a beard, and any time I shifted, the stubble reappeared, even if I’d shaved it last time I was in my human form. My body well muscled, but lithe, and my eyes were dark. Human females found me very attractive, and the phrase “rugged good looks” had been used more than once to describe me.
My true form was more slender and delicate in build, though much stronger. My eyes were still the same dark brown, and my hair was still black and curly, but it fell well past my shoulders, about two thirds of the way down my back. My facial features were hairless and feminine, with full lips, pointed ears, and long lashes. My skin was as pale as a china doll. About halfway down my thighs, white fur began. It covered the delicate, deer like lines of my legs, and continued down to my cloven hooves, which were black. My claws were pale silver, small but deceptively sharp, and I had a small silver blade at the end of a whip-like white furred tail, as well as silver horns. An artist had once called me “a thing of ethereal beauty.” He’d gone on to describe me in flowery prose, and had said that seeing me just once was almost worth dying for. I’d spared him in the end.
I wanted to shift to my true form. My human shape was stronger than that of a normal human, but it was nowhere near as strong as my true form. Digging would be a lot easier. Somehow, though, I felt ashamed of my true shape. I couldn’t help remembering how often it had been covered in blood.
“Ok, that’s enough,” Esthera said, peering into the hole. “Let’s get the bodies in before the sun rises and they start to smell.”
The dwarf had to jump to reach the edge of the hole. Once he had a grip on it, though, he easily pulled himself out. I pulled myself out behind him. Without a word, Herkon picked up one of the bodies and lowered it into the dirt. Thender did the same. Devon looked at the elf. “You going to help?
Esthera sniffed. “I helped dig the hole.”
Devon sighed. “So did Herkon. Actually, he did more digging than you. And he’s helping.”
“You’re not helping,” Esthera pointed out.
“He’s got a broken arm,” Herkon grunted. “Quit whining and help.”
Esthera, with a disgusted look, tugged one of the bodies toward the hole. “I still don’t see why Devon can’t heal himself.”
“He’s out of spells,” Thender said, throwing a body over her shoulder. She was so short the legs still dragged on the ground. “Would you prefer it if he had healed himself, and left you with that nasty gash?”
"Or me with my intestines hanging out?” Herkon grumbled.
I winced. I remembered inflicting those injuries.
Esthera dropped the body, and pointed at me. “He’s not helping.”
“Esthera, quit being an ass,” Herkon snapped. He turned to me. “And you, grab a corpse like the rest of us.”
I turned to the bodies. The nearest one was a little boy with blond hair. He looked almost like he was sleeping. I’d snapped his neck while his mother looked on in horror. Then I’d killed her. I felt sick. Grimly, I lifted up the tiny body.
Herkon, Esthera, and Thender moved like a well oiled machine, despite the elf’s complaints. They never had to wait for one another to move out of the way. They didn’t even have to talk to coordinate their efforts. It seemed to come naturally to them, like they’d worked together many times before. They’d shown the same coordination in the fight. They’d probably been traveling together for awhile.
I, on the other hand, had never worked with them before. Actually, I’d never worked with anyone before. Up until today, the idea of working together with anyone had never occurred to me. I got more than a few grumbles from the others as I blocked their way, or grabbed a corpse they’d been about to move. Thender was nicer about it than Herkon or Esthera.
Thender, I recalled, served a fire god of some sort. She’d given me more than a few burns during the fight, though I’d never stayed injured very long. I had the ability to regenerate any damage short of beheading, except injuries I’d gotten from silver. None of the group had used silver in the fight. I’d thought them foolish, but now I realized their goal had been to capture me, not kill me.
Esthera seemed to prefer more subtle magic over throwing fireballs. Several times in the fight, she’d teleported herself or the clerics out of harm’s way, and she’d dazed me with sleep and paralysis spells, slowing me enough for the dwarf to get in a few good hits, and, eventually, for Devon to bind me.
The dwarf was pure muscle, with a huge battleaxe and superhuman strength. He was likely godtouched; no regular dwarf was that strong, or could take as much punishment. Devon had spent the battle constructing the binding spell, but I suspected his usual role in combat was healer, with the occasional enhancement spell thrown in. The four of them, together, made the perfect fighting team.
By the time all the bodies were in the hole, I was trembling. Herkon grabbed a shovel and thrust the other one at me. I was shaking so bad I could barely get the shovel to enter the soil. So much death. And all of it was my fault.
No, not just my fault. That implied I'd caused it, but that someone else had done the deed. I was the one who'd done this. I was the one who'd killed these harmless, helpless people who made their living in the field and in the trees. I’d killed all of them, and their children. It had been so easy. They had no way to fight back.
Thender gave me a sympathetic look and reached for the shovel in my hands. “Go sit down somewhere. You look like shit.”
I tried to hold on to it. “I have to do this. It’s the only way I can—” My voice broke.
Despite my best efforts, Thender took the shovel from my trembling hands. “Sit down and try to calm yourself. I’m sure the dead will understand.”
Would they? If the dead were watching us right now, what would they think about my helping to bury them? How would they react to my being unable to finish the job? They’d hate me even more than I hated myself right now.
I sat and watched Thender and Herkon bury the my victims, fighting to control my emotions. Devon had said this would pass, but I doubted I’d ever forgive myself for all that I had done.
By the time Thender and Herkon finished, I’d managed to stop shaking. Thender and Devon said a few words, and everyone bowed their heads in deference to the dead. As the group gathered their packs and prepared to move out, something else occurred to me, and I almost started to shake again.
“What happens to me now?” I asked, trying to curb my desperation. “Where do I go from here?”
“You’ll come with us, of course,” Devon said. “Did you really think that we’d purify you and then leave you to suffer alone?”
Relief shot through me, right up until Esthera said, “I am not traveling with a damned demon!”
“We can’t just leave him here,” Devon said.
“Yes, we can. We can do just that. And that’s what we should do. I am not going to wake up with that thing’s claws around my throat!” Esthera snapped.
I winced, and almost started to cry. It shouldn’t hurt so much that Esthera didn’t trust me, but it did.
“Devon’s right,” Herkon said. “What if he goes back to killing?”
“That’s kind of my point!” snapped Esthera.
Thender raise her hands placatingly. “If everyone will just calm down, let’s solve this like the civilized adults we are.”
“We can defend ourselves a lot better than some poor defenseless farmers,” Herkon said. “I, personally, am not leaving this beast to his own devices.”
“I don’t exactly agree with Herkon,” Devon said. “The purification rite is irreversible. However, now that Enko is purified, we are responsible for his well being. We can’t leave him.”
Esthera looked at Thender. “Come on, Thender! Back me up!”
Thender shook her head. “No more fighting. Enko’s coming with us. You’re outvoted, Esthera.”
After that, it didn’t take long for us to get ready to leave. The others were mounted on horses, but, once I took my true form, I needed none. As I left the village behind, I tried to put the dead behind me as well. It didn’t work. My victims would be with me, wherever I went. I could only hope that time would do what distance could not, and put my ghosts to rest.
It was evening. The horses had been seen to, and camp had been set up, including a ward constructed by Esthera. It wasn’t active yet, but it was there, waiting for Esthera to bring it to life.
I stared into the fire. In the flames I saw the expressions of the dead. The horrified looks of those whose loved ones I’d killed in front of them. The gasping faces of the dying. The light going out of eyes, so many eyes. I’d enjoyed it. Now, it made me sick.
The others were arguing over whose turn it was to make dinner, a good natured disagreement that I was sure they’d had many times before. Esthera was insisting that she’d done it last night. Herkon had apparently done it for several nights before that. Thender was trying to mediate, while, at the same time, evasively avoiding all suggestion that she should do it. Devon was exempt from the duty until his arm was healed, but Esthera still wanted him to do it, when she wasn’t insisting that Herkon go get a rabbit for the pot.
I interrupted. “I can solve part of the problem, at least. I’ll go get a rabbit for stew. I can also cook, but I doubt you want me to do that.” Neither Herkon or Esthera trusted me enough to let me near their food.
The four looked at each other. “That works,” Thender said. “If Enko gets some meat to add to the dried soup, I’ll cook.” Esthera shrugged, Herkon nodded slowly, and Devon smiled at me.
“Don’t go too far,” Devon cautioned.
I huffed. “I can take care of myself. Your purification did nothing to weaken me.”
“I was worried you wouldn’t be able to find the campfire again,” Devon said.
“I have an excellent sense of direction. I took care of myself just fine until you came along,” I snapped. It was true. While I liked to spend time in humanoid settlements, I was more than capable of spending months, or even years, alone in the wild.
I stalked off into the darkness. My anger vanished quickly, and pain settled on me once more. I could have spent my life in the wilderness, far from anything resembling civilization. Instead, I had entered mortal towns and cities for the fun of it, taking what I wanted and leaving ruin in my wake.
But now was not the time to think about that. Right now I should be considering rabbits. As I moved away from the camp, I raised my head and sniffed the air. I smelled a rather large colony of rabbits nearby. I could probably get two without too much trouble. I also smelled rennet mushrooms.
I followed my nose to the smooth round caps of the fungus. Kneeling, I examined them. No signs of bugs or rot. The caps were still closed, without the gills showing, and pale yellow, not grey. Perfect. I picked the lot and tucked them in my pouch. If the others didn’t trust me enough to use them in their soup, I’d eat them myself.
I followed my nose to two more mushroom patches, both as nice as the first, and a clump of rassroot bushes. Those had to be harvested more carefully, so I didn’t kill the plant. Then I headed off toward the rabbits.
Carefully, I crept up on the furry creatures, stalking them through the long grass. Most humans used a bow or snares to hunt rabbits. I didn’t bother. My stealth and natural weapons were all I needed.
I was close enough now. In one swift movement I stood, striking one bunny with my tail and scooping another up by the scruff of its neck. The rest of the group raced toward their burrows. I prepared to snap the neck of the rabbit in my hands, and then froze.
The rabbit was frozen in terror, dangling limply from my hands. Its blood covered my hands from where my claws had penetrated its skin. It was so frightened, so helpless. I looked down at the rabbit I’d stabbed with my tail, still twitching as it bled out, and I felt sick. These little creatures had never done me any harm, but I was about to kill them. Had already killed one of them.
“They’re just rabbits,” I told myself. “Just rabbits!” But there was no just about it. They were living things, just like me, and they deserved—
Taking a deep breath, I snapped the neck of the rabbit in my hands. It would have probably died from my claw marks anyways, and I had promised to come back with food. My new companions had no reservations about killing animals to eat. Why should I? Quickly, I dressed my kills, removing the bits we wouldn’t be eating. Then I headed back to camp.
The water had just barely started to boil when I arrived back. Without saying anything, I handed the rabbits to Thender, along with my pouch.
The gnome looked at my pouch curiously. “What’s this?” She opened it, and smiled. “Rennet mushrooms! And razzroot! How did you find all of this? And so quickly! It takes me longer that this to get rabbits.”
I shrugged, embarrassed. “Rennet mushrooms have a rather unique smell. And I just happened to see the razzroot.”
Thender smiled. “Well, thank you.” She looked pointedly at Esthera. “Still unhappy we brought him along?”
Esthera snorted. “Anyone can find mushrooms. And how hard is it to kill a few rabbits?”
“You can’t kill rabbits,” Thender pointed out.
“Well, of course not. I’m a wizard, not a woodsman,” Esthera said. “You want the laws of physics suspended, you go to me. You want rabbits killed, you go elsewhere, or, better yet, you do it yourself.”
“Well, I, personally, am very grateful to eat something aside from dried soup, trail bread, and jerky,” said Devon. “Thank you, Enko.”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I sat down, and stared into the fire, once more seeing the faces of the dead.
“Aren’t you going to have some soup?” Devon asked me. He’d already gotten his bowl, as had Thender and Esthera. Herkon was dishing up now.
I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not hungry.” And I wasn’t. The thought of eating the rabbits I’d killed made me feel ill. It also didn’t feel right to enjoy the pleasures of the living when so many people no longer could.
Herkon grunted. “I’ll eat his share.”
Devon glared. “No, you won’t.” He looked back at me. “Hungry or not, you need to eat. Purification takes a lot out of you. You need to restore your energy. Actually, I should have had you eat something when you first woke up. If you don’t eat, you’ll feel awful tomorrow. You might not be able to travel.”
And that would inconvenience everyone else. Reluctantly, I filled my bowl.
Devon smiled. “Thank you.”
I stared down at my food for awhile before taking the first bite. It tasted really good. I loved rennet mushrooms. They had a very strong flavor; you could barely taste the rabbit. If I didn’t look at my food, I could force myself to eat the meat.
“We need to discuss what we’re doing when we get to Heartvale,” Devon said. “Taking on the bandits there will be difficult. They outnumber us four to one.”
Herkon snorted. “We can take them.”
“I’m not saying we can’t,” Devon said. “I’m saying we need to have a plan.”
“I could make us all invisible,” offered Esthera.
“And silent?” asked Devon. “Remember what happened last time we tried that.” Devon, Thender, and Esthera all looked at Herkon.
He looked up from his soup. “I did try to sneak.”
“No one’s saying you didn’t,” said Thender. “We’re just saying your armor is very loud, whatever you do.”
“That won’t be a problem this time,” Esthera said self importantly. “I altered my invisibility spell so that it muffles noise. We could walk up to them yelling at the top of our lungs, and they still wouldn’t hear us.”
Herkon nodded slowly. “That could work, then.”
I raised my hand tentatively. “Um, what am I going to be doing during this?”
“You’ll be staying out of the way,” growled Herkon.
“We could leave him somewhere,” Thender suggested.
“No,” Herkon and Devon said in unison.
Thender shrugged. “Alright, then. We won’t. He can come with us, but he’ll stay out of the battle.”
The other three nodded. I decided not to mention how well I could fight. They’d seen me fight. They knew. And they still didn’t want me to help. It hurt.
The discussion finished, the others talked about trivial things for the rest of dinner. Then, we all went to bed.