29. Broken hearts, members and dams
3rd of Neth – Starday – 42nd day in Varisia
I don’t know how long I had sat there, with my thousand yard stare, the Commander’s notebook in my hand. Vale and Jakardros were looking at me oddly as I returned from my reverie. Alfred was munching some dried meat and potatoes, gulping down beer and was completely oblivious to my little away moment. Alice and Shalelu seemed not to really have an appetite and ate in silence.
I lowered my gaze to the notebook. It was beautifully if simply adorned with etchings that looked golden, and had the mark of the brotherhood on its cover painted with bright colours. My fingers wanted to open it, but I hesitated. I had sought my twin brother for seven years. I could wait for a few hours and study the book alone and undisturbed a bit later.
Thanking the old ranger, I stuffed the book into my backpack. The rushing feeling of action one gets during fights had subsided, and the stench of dead men hung around us. I had mixed feelings – of giddiness, and of sadness. Excitement and weariness. I inhaled deeply and willed myself to focus. I found myself hungry.
“The question remains. What are we to do next? Where have Lucrezia and the ogres escaped?” I asked them all. I realized at the same time that we hadn’t seen Drake anywhere during the infiltration or the fight itself. Somehow it looked like no preliminary warning had been given – we had got in ridiculously easily and we had jumped on Lucrezia and the heads of clan Kreeg like they weren’t expecting us. That was strange.
“No idea about the woman”, the old ranger sighed, “but the rest of the Kreeg have most likely ran back to their caves at Hook Mountains.”
“What about Shimmerglens and Whitewillow?” I asked him. Alice, Alfred and Shalelu all raised their eyebrows and looked questioningly at me, so I explained briefly the love letters the Commander had sent to someone called Myriana, a woman I assumed was a fey, possibly living at Whitewillow.
Jakardros considered this. “Commander Bayden used to leave for two-three day trips to the swamps once a month. He always traveled alone, and never told anyone what he had done or the exact places he had visited. He cited wanting to scout the area as his reason for the trips, as the swamps were within our area of responsibility. The locals and the Brotherhood typically steered clear of the swamps, so that allowed him more privacy. It is possible that he visited this woman during his treks. It is also possible that he was away on such trip when the attack took place. That’s why we can’t find his body here.”
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Or if he had a part in the ploy, and he’s not here because of that”, I suggested. Jakardros kept looking forward and disregarded my accusation, but across the table to me Vale shivered in anger. His knuckles turned white as he gripped his axes, both on the table for me to see. Witnessing his reaction I almost reminded the barn door of a man that his unwavering loyalty to people he thought he knew well had backfired once already, but I chose otherwise and decided to drop the matter. Maybe we could give Commander Bayden the benefit of doubt for now.
We ate for a moment, contemplating our options. I threw some meat for Dûath as well, which he hungrily devoured.
Only then I realized Harsk was not with us. I asked if anyone had seen him. “He’s somewhere praying for Iomedae”, Alfred informed me, emptied another wooden pint of beer and burped audibly. Shalelu shook her head at the sellsword, a knowing gesture of a person who’s seen the other act like that hundreds of times before.
An idea formed in my mind. We didn’t really know if there had been rangers present at the dungeons, but we had the means to see without diving into the darkness. There was no reason for Harsk to feel sorry for himself if the dungeons were empty.
I suggested Jakardros that if the dungeons were directly beneath us and the ceiling was less than 15 feet thick, I could examine the dungeons with my magical gloves. The old ranger informed me that indeed, I could try to look through the floors of the infirmary. I asked him to show me where.
I was no stranger to human suffering and the past two days had increasingly numbed me to the sight of dead, mutilated humans. So I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the place looked more like an unkept slaughterhouse than a place of healing and rest. And instead of animals, the organs, intenstines, bones, patches of skin and other bodyparts belonged to people.
I set down to one knee on the floor, brushed aside undried blood and placed my palms on the stone tiles. Jakardros was behind me, watching.
“It’s really dark inside”, I began. “There’s only a little light shining from the stairwell. There are two bodies floating, two males, the other quite young-looking and pale of complexion, the other dark-skinned, like Vale, looking older, perhaps in his thirties. It’s hard to tell.” I let go, and my vision returned to normal. Jakardros merely nodded and turned to leave. I took a nearby cloth that was not dirty and cleaned blood off my fingers and gloves. Two people, that wasn’t much, I considered. The majority of the Black Arrows had already been slain by the Kreeg before we attacked, and I couldn’t say if the two below had been dead already when the waters poured in. Harsk shouldn’t worry about them. Sometimes it felt as the young cleric of Iomedae carried all the weight of the world as his burden.
I followed the old ranger back to the mess hall. It was time to choose what we did next. Time was at a premium.
“Again we have few options”, I started from the doorway, regarding everyone but Harsk who was still somewhere being regretful. “We follow the ogres back to the Mountains, if they’ve truly gone there, or we try to find Lucrezia’s tracks. Or we go visit this Myriana person at the Shimmerglens.”
Alfred shrugged. “My bet’s that the woman has gone with the ogres.” I had to agree. It felt logical.
Jakardros seemed unsure and unwilling to make a decision. I think all his will was being used to cope with the fact his Brotherhood was crushed and it was falling to him to pick up the pieces. “There’s a route to the Kreeg lands through the mountains”, he explained absentmindedly. “A path up, that goes through a plateau called Valley of Dead Trees. Getting up there is easy, but after that, the path gets narrower and harder to traverse. And there are.. factors to be considered when getting across the Valley.” He added, mysteriously. I never got the chance to ask him to elaborate when Vale slammed his fist to the table. “We need to find Bayden!”
An awkward silence fell to the mess hall. I broke it with a statement. “At least Lucrezia has been depleted of her ogre army. She is on the run, and we appear to have the upper hand.” That made Alfred nod. “Indeed. The remaining Kreeg must be in a state of disarray with their leadership all dead and done with.”
“All but one”, Jakardros murmured to himself and then raised his voice, “but Alfred is right. It will take days, weeks even, before they can become reorganized. The remaining clan will fall upon itself as it seeks for new leadership. From the in-fighting, a new leader will eventually arise.”
“Unless we finish what we started and kill all the pesky bastards”, Alfred commented with his trademark guffaw. I flashed a smile at that. Exterminating the entire clan was a charming idea.
“I can talk for myself only, and Harsk”, Alice broke in and turned heads, “but I really could use some resting time before we head out to seek new fights.” She was right. She and Harsk had used their magics extensively during the morning, and they would need time to recharge their powers. There was little sense in running after the enemy with half of our group unable to contribute. Harsk’s healing powers in particular were always crucial to us. And even though I hated it, I had to begin to appreciate the things the mage school washout did with her scimitar.
So while the next destination remained undecided, we chose not to run into the rain like headless chickens. Instead, Alfred, Alice and I went out to check the yard and the other buildings with Jakardros, while Vale remained inside the keep and started to gather the dead.
The building next to the outer wall, roughly south-east of the keep, was a storage room, or a meeting space, I couldn’t say which due to the destruction. Inside we found a pile of dead people. Some poor men had a long pole driven through their torsos, and they had been burned – no, grilled – like they were some sort of human meat skewers. As said, I had seen during the past two days enough human mutilation to last a lifetime. So I was not surprised to find myself thinking seriously how the hell the ogres had managed to light a proper barbecue fire in this weather.
During our infiltration we had ran past the buildings in the north-eastern corner of the stronghold, but we checked them as well for any lingering enemies or clues about them.
The easternmost was a stable. The horses of the brotherhood had been slain just like their masters. I spotted a few without heads and remembered seeing them in the chapel and in the lower floor of the keep. A giant eagle had been nailed into the stable wall, and it hung there lifeless, its massively wide wings stretched out. Back at Graul farmstead Jakardros had said they were magnificent creatures, and he was not lying. Even in death, this specimen looked majestic and proud. It had no reason hanging there, a mutilated, sick trophy. Another reason to kill all the Kreeg, I cursed to myself. The Carmine Avenger glowed faintly in my grip, and Dûath growled in sympathy.
My dark mood improved a little bit when I noted Jaagrath’s headless corpse hanging at the lookout tower’s side by a hook. The rangers had replaced the dead ogre warrior’s body with Jaagrath’s, considering the Kreeg leader a better warning sign for other ogres than the one the leader had himself put up on display. With my sharp vision I noted how the legs of the headless corpse still twitched every now and then. Rigor mortis was setting in.
I stopped at the yard and waved happily at Jaagrath, drawing curious looks from Alice, Alfred and Jakardros.
There was only one building left to check – the stronghold really wasn’t that big. The remaining house was a small barracks with one entry like the other barracks we had burned.
I chose to remain outside, under a canopy and took out an apple while the others moved in silently. After a moment, Alfred came back. He was excited about something.
“There’s a frigging ogre inside, sleeping!” My eyebrows leaped an inch higher. “Excuse me, what?”
Alfred lowered his voice a bit, but he was almost chuckling. “There is! And it doesn’t look like much of a fight. It looks like a pansy. In an ogre way. I don’t know!”
“Well, kill it then”, I offered but Alfred shook his head and went serious. “I want to capture and interrogate it. Alice’s with me.”
“You want to capture a five hundred pound monster alive?” I said slowly, perplexed and unbelieving. The sellsword just grinned. “We’ll go ahead then. I’ll even come and watch you get your head slammed into a wall as you try”, I sighed, threw away the half-eaten apple and followed him in. It wasn’t the dumbest idea of the day anyway. If Alfred succeeded might actually glean some valuable information.
At the small dormitory farthest to the exit there really was a hulking ogre, of the lowest caste I guessed, lying on the floor and snoring peacefully. Alfred whispered for my rope and I handed it over to him, offering him good luck. Jakardros and Alice watched at the sleeping monster keenly as Alfred began his slow approach. His mithral heavy armor didn’t clink and rattle that much that time, I had to admit, so he managed to get right next to the ogre without waking it up. But that was the easiest part. Alfred unrolled the first rope and gently began to tie the ogre’s feet together. Still incredibly the beast continued to snore as the thick hempen rope slided over and across its ankles. Wasting no time, Alfred moved to the hands next and tied them together as well. Alice went to help him. Still the beast slumbered.
With both ropes tightly secured, Alfred winked to us with satisfaction, drew his trusty axe and shield, and banged the former’s side to the latter. The sound was like a loud gong, and it woke the beast up. The sellsword put his boot to its throat and pointed it with his axe, looking menacing. The rest of us gathered around it.
The ogre tried to move and trash a bit but found itself expertly tied up. Alfred’s axe on its face didn’t help matters. Quickly, it gave up and began to gurgle and spit. It took me a while to realize it was talking in Giant. Jakardros began to translate.
The ogre confirmed that the lady we had faced in the keep was indeed Lucrezia. Some time ago, the stupid beast couldn’t say when, the lady had entered and met the clan at their lair in the mountains, and asked for their help.
Further interrogation revealed that the Kreeg were actually ruled by a giant – Jaagrath had just been something between the clan and the giant. The ogre didn’t remember nor wasn’t willing to tell who the giant was. While the region had a lot of giants, Jakardros knew of only one by name, one called Razmus, but he didn’t believe he was commanding the Kreeg. Apparently this Razmus hated the Kreeg ogres almost as much as the rangers did.
Unsurprisingly the helpless ogre proved to be a shallow reservoir of usable insight, so it soon became the time to dispose of it. It really was a wretched pansy as it did not trash or resist one bit when we dragged it out of the barracks to the open air.
“All right, time to die”, Alfred informed the ogre nonchalantly in Common and lifted his battle-axe above his head. The very small eyes of the ogre finally went wide in horror – I think it just then realized what we were doing to it.
Vale’s bass timbre rumbled like thunder across the yard.
“You got one alive! It’s mine!” He came running from the keep, wielding his axes. Alfred looked at Vale, then at the ogre, and put his axe away. Jakardros moved to intercept his brother-at-arms. “Brother, take it-” he began the command but the brute stormed past him and the ogre received Love into its chest, followed by a strike of Peace to its face. Vale was furious. He had hell to pay, and he let all the hate of ogres he felt flow out in an avalanche of violence. He roared the names of his fallen comrades as he struck, again and again. He hacked and he hacked. Ogre blood spurted and flew and the rest of us had to take a step or two back or be drenched in it.
“It’s nice that we had the chance to talk with it before Vale found out”, Alice murmured as we watched Vale butcher the ogre. But Jakardros wasn’t amused. “Vale, stand down”, he ordered. The dark-skinned ranger had thrown Love away at some point and kept hacking with the larger Peace using his both hands. He ordered again, more sternly this time. Vale did not stop.
“VALE!” Jakardros shouted angrily and pulled him around by the shoulder. The ranger’s face was covered in almost black ogre blood and he was grimacing madly, lost in rage. But the familiar sight of his superior officer brought him back to his senses. His barrel chest heaved as he breathed hard and let his arms relax. At his feet, the body of the ogre was hardly recognizable as nothing more than a pile of raw meat the colour of black and sickly green.
Tears flowed down his cheeks. “I found my brother..” he let out the words through sobs. Jakardros embraced him, offering some consolation, and the rest of us just stood there, each lost in their private thoughts. I thought about my brother, and thanked the gods that he had left the Black Arrows before the slaughter had occurred.
We retired back to the keep. We spent the afternoon cleaning up the lower level and discussing our next move. Vale and Jakardros talked us into going to the Shimmerglens and look for the Commander before heading up the mountains and face Lucrezia and the remaining ogres. But first we wanted to send word of the situation in Fort Rannick back to Lord Mayor Grobaras in Magnimar. It was obvious Vale and Jakardros by themselves had no means to maintain the keep and the Brotherhood itself, so warriors and resources from Magnimar were needed direly.
We decided that Harsk, being the most literate and diplomatic of us, would pen the letter to Magnimar. I gave the cleric a piece of paper (from this journal actually) and lent him my pencil and bottle of ink. While the others remained behind to help the cleric write the message, I trusted my help wasn’t required and retired to a small guest room with its furniture still intact.
There, I sat down to a bed and took the Commander’s notebook from my backpack. Dûath, as always, was with me and lied down on the floor. His green-yellow eyes met mine and he gazed at me intently.
“Here goes”, I said to the panther, drew a deep breath and opened the notebook.
Inside there was a page dedicated to each dead, missing or retired Black Arrow brother. Many of the pages were still blank, but scores of rangers, men and women, had been immortalized by a short, personal passage. The handwriting changed as I turned the pages, indicating a change in writer and ergo at the top position. The Brotherhood had served for years, but it was not an old, legendary order. I wondered would all the recently dead fit in the notebook, and would Jakardros have the strength and the willingness to write their passages. Somehow, I knew he had given me the book for keeps and was not intending to get it back.
Finally, I found the page I was looking for. My heart missed a beat as I read the title. Macharius. No family name. Of course no family name. Macharius was a slave name given to him. And he had kept his just like I had. My eyes wolfed down on the words. His passage was short, starting with his entry into the order two years and three months ago. It went on describing some of his heroics during missions, slaying ogres. I was swelled with pride. Then I understood why the passage was so short. He had left only six months later, after losing a brother during a mission, the notes said. He had served for one winter, and the date of his departure was marked at the bottom of the page. He had been here a year, nine months and three days ago. Walking within these very walls. Saying his goodbyes to the rangers who all were now dead. Embarking on a journey away, to a destination I did not know, with a plan I couldn’t figure out. Was he traveling with a purpose, or just aimlessly?
The few answers I got only gave birth to more questions. I felt a knot in my stomach. I felt so helpless, vexed and haunted by regret. I was I supposed to do now? Where should I continue? It was like hanging by a cliff edge, almost falling, and seeing a helping hand reach down to you.. only to stop an inch away from your hand. So close, yet so far.
No. I would not wade in self-pity. I willed to remind myself the good side of things. The fact that it said, right here in this little book, that my brother who I had thought long lost, had been alive and well only months ago. I allowed myself to hope he still was. I would continue with our mission here in Fort Rannick, and look for more clues of Macharius. Somehow I was certain that my path with the others would take me around Varisia and would lead me to other pieces of information about him.
Evening, and then night, fell. The keep was silent but for Vale, who I heard screaming alone and hacking the corpses of the ogres. Whereas I had come to know my brother might still be there somewhere, he had to bury his come morning.
The next morning, before we broke our fast, I went out to catch some clean air. Outside Vale had woken up early (or he hadn’t slept one second) and piled the dead ogres together. Flies buzzed in their hundreds over the pile and the stench was awful. But at least it was not coming from humans this time.
Harsk had returned from his self-inflicted solitude for breakfast, the letter to Magnimar in his hand. He didn’t speak a lot, even though I had told him what I had seen of the flooded dungeons with my gloves. For him there was no possibility he had caused two innocent deaths, rather it was a certainty. He blamed himself relentlessly. I was just thankful he wasn’t part of a temple whose members self-flagellated themselves.
Shalelu joined me, Harsk, Alfred and Alice as we left Fort Rannick towards Turtleback Ferry. At the breakfast table she had told me she was considering staying at Fort Rannick and joining the Black Arrows. I was surprised to be frank. From what I had gathered she had some ties to the place, but she also had loyalties to Sandpoint. And good friends there too. In a rush of words uncharacteristic of me, I talked her into coming with us and search for Commander Bayden at Shimmerglens. If she was about to join the Order, why not start with an act of heroism where she helps bring their commander back?
The rain continued – a light pour but a pour anyway. I was amazed half the lands weren’t flooded already, if it had been raining for weeks. We walked south-west, making good time through the forest using a clearly marked path.
After two miles or so, we came across a lonely farmstead. There were signs of live – livestock, smoke coming from the chimney, voices of people. They were no strangers to danger, and they proved it by spotting us almost as quickly as we spotted them, vanishing inside the farmhouse like a pack of rats and barring the door from inside. And they stayed there, even when Alfred tried to sweet-talk them and I had a look with my gloves. It was a peasant family of four. The father told us to bugger off – he had seen the commander yes, but not for the past weeks or so. Lucrezia they hadn’t seen moving around, but she was nothing but trouble according to the father. We left them at peace and continued, turning south towards Turtleback Ferry.
A mile or so further, still a good way from the town, I heard a child sobbing somewhere in the forest around us. I raised the Carmine Avenger – not the typical response when hearing a child crying I admit – but I couldn’t pinpoint its source. There was something strange about it. I gestured the others to stop and the sobs became louder. “It’s magical”, Alice said looking around warily, confirming my suspicions. I took an arrow from my vine and nocked it.
“Yapyap! Don’t shoot! I mean no harm! Please! Please help me!” A boy’s voice came from somewhere around us. I suspected a trap and kept eyeing the woods for any signs of trouble.
“Come out so we can see you”, I shouted. Alfred was at point and he lifted his hands in front of him, signaling he was unarmed. I had seen him pull his axe from his belt in a heartbeat so I knew not to worry about him. But the boy did not come from the front but from the back. “Please don’t hurt me! Yapyap!”, he sobbed behind us, and we turned on our heels. It was a tiny pixie, a bit more than one feet tall, with little colourful and delicate wings, flying in the air. It hovered towards us, and the wings buzzed, striking to fast for my eyes to see.
“I need your help”, he said in a tinny, bright voice stricken with sorrow. He seemed to be honest, and genuinely in distress. I lowered my bow and arrow. “Who are you”, Harsk asked, trying to sound gentle. “I am YapYap”, he told us and flew closer to Harsk who he recognized as a good soul. “Please help me”, he added, begging. “What kind of help do you need?” Harsk asked the little flying boy who kept repeating his own name irritably. “My mistress, she is sick. No, she is dying. Yapyap! She’s destroying the forest and the glade! She needs help! You must save her!”
“We’ll come to the swamp right after we’ve run some errands at the town-” I started, sounding to my ear totally reasonable but it drove the boy into heartbreaking sobs. “Nooo! My mistress needs your help right away!” Alfred shared knowing glances with Alice and Harsk and nodded at the pixie boy. “OK, we’ll come and help your mistress.”
The boy’s face became radiated by a smile and he wiped away tiny tears. “You’ll come? Really? Surely? Yapyap!” He buzzed next to Alfred, took him by the arm with both his little hands and started to pull the mercenary towards north-east. “Come! Hurry! We must hurry! Yapyap!”
I told myself I would drive my adamantine gladius through my head if I heard the pixie shout yap yap one more time.
There was a single route called Old Sanos Trail through Sanos Forest. The Shimmerglens was positioned between Sanos and Kreegwood, the latter where we had been adventuring and generally making the world a nicer place for the past three days. Old Sanos Trail turned into Wicker Walk, a raised walkway what crossed Shimmerglens marshlands, and at its other end was a solitary, age-old bridge, called Bitter Hollow. Or the place where the bridge stood was called Bitter Hollow. Jakardros had been unclear, and I didn’t care that much.
The irritable pixie led us to Bitter Hollow and then over the bridge to Shimmerglens proper. I’d had a bad feeling about the place when I had scanned the region from afar, but the feeling grew worse when we reached it. I have never preferred swamps that much – their rot breeds strange diseases and even worse creatures and they are hard to traverse. I liked having solid ground beneath my feet. But I had seen nothing like this before. The swamp emanated an hardly visible sickly green light. The undergrowth was dying, or having its life sucked out of it. Puddles of fresh water had been turned to puddles of slime and muckus, and they bubbled, burping free methane and other gasses of rot. I could see no animals, no birds, only the flies buzzing, eagerly enjoying the death and decay. Here, the rainclouds above felt heavier, like a pillow some mighty god was pushing against the lands, ready to suffocate it and let it out of its misery.
The place was sick and unwelcoming. A kind of place no sane person would enter. And YapYap was leading us to the heart of it. We left the wooden walkway and headed south across the marsh.
“Ugh”, Alfred exclaimed as his boot got stuck in a small puddle of wetness, rotten grass and leaves. The heavily armored mercenary and the dwarf with his short legs were having a lot of trouble keeping up with the flying pixie. “Problems, sellsword?” Alice said quirkily as she walked unhindered beside him. At Fort Rannick, she had found a pair of Boots of the Mire, a magical pair of longboots that allowed the wearer to traverse difficult swampy terrain as it was a stone path. Smug little bastard, I thought, jumping from hard, dry patches of land to another, evading the puddles and soft ground, Dûath at my heels. I preferred my boots of elvenkind. I felt I could not miss a step or fall with them.
“Yapyap! Hurry!” The pixie was urging us to move faster. “Alfred”, I said as I made another jump from one tussock to another, “tell the boy I’ll shoot him with an arrow if he says yap yap even once.” Pulling himself up from a mire, the sellsword guffawed. YapYap didn’t hear me or he didn’t mind. He was flying farther ahead, increasingly worried.
“Of gods, this is enough!” I heard Harsk curse, and he shouted angrily a spell. From his hands, bolts of blue lights shot into our feet and I felt lighter immediately. Alfred took a step forward, looked down at his feet and laughed. Then another. I had a look at what he was laughing at and saw him standing on a puddle of dark water. “Waterwalking”, Harsk offered as an explanation and started to pace across the swamp without any hindrance. Alice went after him. “And just when I was starting to enjoy your misery!” She exclaimed at the dwarf.
Our speed increased but we quickly ran into other problems.
Alfred suddenly stopped for no obvious reason. I saw him focus his gaze on something at the horizon, and I tried to see what he saw, but to no avail.
“YapYap”, he started, talking carefully, “is the swamp supposed to cause hallucinations? Cause I’m seeing a sea-faring ship at the middle of the swamp and I don’t think it’s supposed to be here.”
The butterfly boy just flew a circle around Alfred and continued further south. “Yapyap, we must continue!” Harsk walked behind Alfred and tapped his shoulder from below, urging him to come.
A few steps later I felt something go past and through me, a breeze but unlike a wind. A feeling of anguish and despair made physical. I focused, closed my eyes and willed whatever the swamp was throwing at our minds to back away. I opened my eyes, and felt in control. By Starfall, the marsh was in pain, I realized.
We saw and heard weird, unexplainable things but reached our destination unchallenged. We walked to a dry patch of land that surrounded a small lake. I was no magic-wielder but even I could feel the presence of powerful magics. So this is Whitewillow, I mused, nothing’s white. Around the patch of land was a circle of dead trees. No-one, even Shalelu who I thought would be more familiar with the fey and their environments, being a full-blooded elf, could recognize them. The trees looked weird, and at closer inspection their trunks appeared to have human forms. Or as if people had been melded into the tree trunks. The people’s hands and hair shot up as branches, but they were dry and grey – lifeless.
I saw Alice gently touch one of the trunks, trying to understand what had happened and what they were. Shalelu kept silent. She had been oddly quiet the whole day, I took note. Harsk looked disconcerted, probably sensing the magical plight more keenly than the others, and Alfred was staring towards the lake. A faint mist covered it but we could see there was a little, maybe 40 to 50 feet wide island at the middle of the lake. It was flat, covered in decaying grass and moss.
“What has happened here”, Harsk asked silently, voicing the thoughts of everyone present.
“Quick! Please! You must go and help my mistress!” YapYap was buzzing around and pointing at the small island frantically. He flew to a branch of one dead tree and started to sob. “I can’t continue further. Please help my mistress. Even death is better than this – a release.”
The moment YapYap stopped talking both Harsk and Alice flinched in pain. “Someone is calling me to release them or it..” Harsk started, talking through gritted teeth, his eyes closed. Alice shook her head and stared at us. “I heard it too. I think a love story came to a horrible conclusion here”, she offered.
“Let’s find out”, Alfred stated and started towards the lake. Harsk blessed to us all and added a spell that protected us from evil, just to be certain, and we waded into the shallow waters, not really knowing what to expect.
The water was no more than a feet deep, and we got halfway towards the little island when Alfred jumped and exclaimed, splashing dirty water everywhere. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” He shouted the question. “Hands trying to grab me, rising from the water!” For emphasis, he slashed down with his axe and hit nothing but water. I shook my head and there was a clear No from Shalelu, Harsk and Alice. The sellsword stopped fighting hallucinations, but was still nervous.
Finally, we stepped from the waters to dry land. Or little less wet land. Even though Shimmerglens had been almost soundless, it was eerily quiet here. I couldn’t even hear my own breathing. It was as everything was standing still, even the air. We walked a few steps over the dying grass and moss, and noticed the small pond at the middle of the island. No more than ten feet across, it formed a perfect circle and its surface was perfectly smooth and unmoving, like oil, but the water in it was clear. Wholly unnatural, I gathered, feeling my nerves starting to tingle.
As if from a cue, the clear surface of the pond broke. Something started to emerge from it. I couldn’t make up what it was at first, but soon I recognized the head of a woman and I shouted a redundant warning to everyone before stepping back. Alice was mumbling something, and I heard Alfred curse aloud, not knowing whether to stand down or prepare for a fight.
She was magnificent, storybook beautiful. Not as beautiful as she was, but stunning in a way that made men fall to their knees and beg for a kiss and a moment with her. Alfred’s mouth went wide open. I have to admit I couldn’t take my eyes off her either.
But she was ruined. And beneath the grace and beauty she was cold, and dead. As she emerged from the water, hovering up like a stark-naked goddess, I saw her hands and feet were torn apart completely or hanging limply by the skin. Her eyes, when she opened them, were completely black and devoid of emotions.
Alfred had the courage to make the first question. “Who are you?”
The answer did not come from her lips but from everywhere at the same time. It was like a cold wind before a thunderstorm. “You’ve disappointed me… because of you my beloved is dead…”
“It has to be Myriana”, Harsk commented carefully to us. I cleared my throat. “Are you talking about Lamatar Bayden, the commander of Fort Rannick.” Upon hearing the name, she turned her unmerciful gaze to me and to this day I feel the shivers of cold from remembering that glance. She cried, a keen wail that hurt our ears. “YOU. You too have disappointed me!” She yelled with fury. I shielded my ears and saw her beginning the motions of casting a spell. I opened my mouth to speak but Harsk was faster. Casting Silence is apparently quick work, and the shrill scream came to an abrupt stop.
“Now what?” I asked, utilizing the moment of silence to discuss our options. Withdrawal started to sound a reasonable choice. “Aw crap”, Alfred uttered and pointed at the fey who quite likely was no other than Myriana. She had begun to rise higher, to move beyond the area of the silence spell. It took her a few seconds to hover above it, but as she emerged, she wasn’t screaming in rage anymore. A sob had replaced it. Alfred tried a question, as gently as the whoring drunk could.
“What happened to Lamatar?” Tears like mercury flowed from the fey’s black eyes. “The ogres… they took him. I- I can’t reach him… He’s dead.” There was finality in her words. We just stood there, numbly, uncertain what to do or say.
“You must bring him to me”, she continued and looked at Alfred. The authority in her voice almost made me sit down like a dog. I saw Alfred resisting her like I was, and he nodded leadenly. “We- we will. We’ll try. And we’ll bring him or his remains to you.” And with those words, Myriana sighed, closed her eyes and threw her head back before beginning to slowly hover back into the pond.
“Is she all right now?” YapYap asked us when we returned from the island. He was still sitting on a dead tree branch and was fidgeting nervously. Harsk shook his head. “No. She is still dead, but we will try to help by looking for her beloved.” Hearing that, YapYap broke into a pitiful cry and buried his face into his hands. We left the place in silence.
We saw more terrifying hallucinations as we made our way back from Shimmerglens. I thought I spotted dead horses trotting in the air. Safe to say I was more than happy to leave the dying, sick marsh.
We had still the message to Lord Mayor Grobaras to be sent, so we trekked east towards Turtleback Ferry. We arrived there at late afternoon, left the letter to the keeper of the general store which also served as the post house in the small village, and had a small bite to eat at the tavern. The mood at the tavern was rough, people kept eyeing us dubiously. I overheard whispers where the locals were connecting us to Lucrezia’s businesses. I didn’t mind – they were false rumours of little people. As we were leaving, I ran into Tattoo Boy. The poor boy went pale and almost tripped his legs when he saw me. That almost made returning to the rain bearable.
We reached the old, sturdy stone bridge that connected Kreegwood and Ashwood we heard thunder approaching from the north-east. Except it wasn’t thunder at all.
From the forest across the river a lone man came running in panic. “It’s broken! The dam’s broken! Run for your lives!”
“The what?” Alfred asked incredulously. “The dam of Storval Deep”, Shalelu explained between gritted teeth. “But that’s, what, four to five miles away”, I said, trying to remember from the maps, unbelieving that water from a lake could create such force. “The rains have been too much for the structure, there’s too much water to hold”, Harsk speculated, being the dwarf – they typically knew a lot about construction. We watched the lone man cross the bridge still frantically running and yelling at us.
Shalelu started to run towards the bridge. “We’re trying to get over so I suggest we run as well!” She shouted to us over her shoulder. We followed suit.
We got over just the second the gigantic water masses came along the river and swept the lands before them. We continued running further up a slope into the forest as the storming waters flooded everything. The waters didn’t seem to lose any momentum, and they rumbled past us, ustoppable, towards Turtleback Ferry. In a few moments, I guessed, the parts or the whole town would be hit by the waves.
But that wasn’t all. In the murky, roiling waters I spotted two massive, long tentacles shortly break the surface before disappearing beneath. I was reminded of a story of a monster I had read from the Syrpent’s Tane, a tentacled sea-beast that lived in Storval Deep. I wondered what would happen to Turtleback Ferry and Claybottom Lake when that monstrosity got there.
“Fellows”, I realized, “I think our message to Grobaras never got to leave Turtleback Ferry.”