La’ss’a surveyed the elves as they packed their few belongings quickly and efficiently. The others were slowly rising and performing the usual early-morning adventurer tasks: checking to make certain all extremities were still attached, groaning at various aches and pains, and discovering the new and interesting places spiders had spun webs in the night.
“I hope your night went well, but I should warn you against going to Murann. You will probably find more than you like there.”
Jacynth nodded. “We are aware. But we cannot be so easily dissuaded from what we must do.”
“Then I wish you well, as you will find Sulveig there, probably.”
“If we do find him, we will send you a message.”
La’ss’a shrugged. “You will, unless Sythillis has sent him forth.”
“What will you do now?” Jacynth asked. Demaris cut into the discussion abruptly.
“I don’t know about the others, but I’m going to Athkatla, with Oren.”
“As will I, if you’ll have me,” Olena announced.
La’ss’a grimaced at Demaris. “Do you not want to see your father?”
“Mmph,” was Demaris’ response. “Eventually. After I find out what Sulveig is up to in Athkatla and put a stop to it. Whatever’s wrong with my father can keep for a few more days.”
“Even though it may be of significant importance to unraveling this mystery? Sulveig was there when we returned to the school, after all.”
“It’s possible, but I think thousands of people dying has a slightly higher priority.”
“Pardon,” Yorick added, “but if you are going to Athkatla, I can be of great use to you, knowing the city and its peoples as I do.”
“Fine, come along then,” Demaris replied. “The more the merrier.”
During the discussion, Barak crawled over to his blond friend and began examining Sam, who was still lying on the ground in a spectacular imitation of a corpse. A golden glow surrounded Barak’s hands for a few moments, then he pulled Sam into a sitting position. Sam resisted, then smiled slightly as he realized his terrible pain had dissipated. Standing, Barak turned to look at Demaris, his face stiff. She caught his gaze and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“I should come, too,” Barak said softly. “With war brewing, you may need my help.” Demaris smiled slightly.
Noting her distraction, La’ss’a nudged Demaris impatiently. “Can you at least shed some light on whatever your father may have been hiding? Sulveig seemed to believe something in the observatory was important. We do have these talking stones, at least.”
“I can try, but it’s a long story.”
Kyrian laughed. “That’s all right, I hardly remember what a short story sounds like.”
Taking advantage of Demaris’ preoccupation, Ligeia sidled up to Oren and licked her lips suggestively. “Are you sure you want to go with her?” Oren blushed and avoided her gaze.
“I should report to the Order with what I have learned,” the paladin demurred.
Ligeia was not easily deterred, playing with her hair to make the silky locks ripple like the surface of the sea. “Are you really sure, Oren?”
“I am sure. ‘Tis my duty, and I would not be remiss in carrying it out.”
“You mean your duty is to run away from a fight with an evil man who might even be a demon in disguise?”
The paladin took on a perplexed expression. “Demaris believes Sulveig is in Athkatla. So, no, I don’t think I am running away.”
“Yes, but we don’t all agree with her,” Sam announced irritably. Demaris glanced over at where he stood with his arms crossed, his expression impatient as always. She gritted her teeth and drew herself up to her full height.
“I owe you an apology,” she spat, sounding not at all apologetic, as she clearly had to force the words out. “I know that’s not worth much, but it’s all I have.”
Sam matched her grim stare with one of his own. “Don’t be sorry, be better, if you have the wit to manage it. As you may have noticed, punching people without provocation tends to lead to unpleasant results.”
After watching the discussion unfold for some time, Jacynth spoke again. “You will all decide your own paths, but the day goes on without us. We must seek the road.”
“I’m with your lot,” Kyrian said abruptly. Odran smiled hugely.
“We welcome the company. With help we may have a chance to succeed.”
“Well, we didn’t exactly have a chance to catch up,” Kyrian said, grinning. Ligeia, rolling her eyes and shooting Oren a disgusted look, sidled towards Kyrian.
“I will join you also, if you will allow it. I am well adept with a silent blade.” Kyrian looked at her, then at Odran, with a terribly puzzled expression. Odran shrugged as if to say: “women, who understands them?”
“That sounds . . . nice?” Kyrian replied a bit dubiously. “Be welcomed.”
Ligeia looked down at her worn and stained clothing. “Alas, I am without much in the way of equipment, but I have many . . . talents.”
“Well, I do have this extra rapier I found. Unless you prefer a longsword?”
“Oooh, the things I can do with a rapier would amaze you,” Ligeia murmured, winking lasciviously. Kyrian gave her a blank look. Everyone in the clearing found themselves watching as Ligeia cooed over the weapon, stroking it like a pet and examining it in minute detail. The spectacle was impossible to ignore.
“My sister has a couple of bows, too,” Kyrian said, entranced.
“Yes,” Olena said, stepping between Ligeia and Kyrian. “Would you prefer short, or long?” A lengthy pause ensued, filled with a great deal of coughing and throat-clearing.
La’ss’a poked Demaris a second time to recapture the human woman’s attention. “You were going to tell us a story.”
Demaris grimaced. “Jacynth is right, we’re wasting time here. Is it absolutely vital you hear my story this instant, or can we make a deal?”
“You do realize the hobs just let us go, so this is probably a trap?”
“You may be right, but if I don’t do anything, how is that better?”
Fa’ss’th grabbed his sister’s shoulder and hissed into her earhole at some length. La’ss’a growled and hissed back at him. “If there is a library of magical arts in Athkatla then we will go!” Fa’ss’th announced in the common tongue, ducking as La’ss’a tried to swat him.
“The Cowled Wizards have a large hall in Athkatla,” Oren offered.
“I’ll tell you my story and give you whatever assistance you request if you just let me go to Athkatla--without giving me crap about it, mind you—and find out what is going on,” Demaris pleaded.
“Grr,” La’ss’a said, “My brother has a point, curse him, the library might hold more information. But remember, you owe us twice now. Once for the rescue, once for this. You got it?”
“Yes. Believe me, I get it.”
“What if she’s wrong, though?” Sam asked. “Sulveig didn’t exactly strike me as a reliable source.”
“Mmph,” La’ss’a responded. “Some of us should go to Murann, then. I will go, Fa’ss’th will be better at the library. Kyrian and Ligeia are already going there, apparently. So what about you, Sam?”
“I think I’ll head back to Murann. Whatever she says, I think that’s where Sulveig is.”
“All right!” Demaris announced, relieved. “That’s settled, let’s not waste any more time!”
The two lizards nodded to each other and packed with great speed and efficiency. They did not seem perturbed at separating, but their expressions were difficult to read in any case. Sam pulled Barak aside to whisper a few hurried words, then stuck his hand out. Barak shook hands with him gravely and went to stand beside Demaris.
Olena looked close to tears and cast an appealing look at her brother. “Do you mind if we . . .” she said.
“No, no, go on,” Demaris said. The twins trotted off into the woods a ways. “Let’s get moving, they can catch up.” Jacynth gathered her elves, Kyrian, Sam, and Ligeia with a glance and led them in a southwesterly direction.
“Yes,” Yorick announced. “Let us return to the city of coin!”
“Heh,” Demaris muttered. “We need some equipment. Our very first stop should probably be a village on the way to Athkatla.”
“Do you know of one that sells the kinds of things we will need? Gear to repel an army is not usually found in your typical mom and pop village store.”
“It’s better than nothing,” Demaris said with a sigh.
“I know the country best, I’ll lead the way,” Oren said. He untied his warhorse and set off along the road.
The mountains remained eerily empty, but as the day ground towards afternoon the group heading towards Athkatla found themselves going downhill more often than not, and they passed from the realm of dark fir trees into the shade of birches and maples. Oren stopped in a clearing to glance at the sky and frowned.
“I think something may be amiss,” he murmured.
Olena nodded. “Yes, those are carrion birds circling.” The black shapes whirled and wheeled—like a slow ominous tornado—over something in the near distance.
“That usually does mean something has gone amiss . . . for someone else,” Yorick said helpfully.
“Shall we send a scout ahead?” the paladin asked.
“I could fly over, try to get a look,” Olena offered.
Demaris blinked. “You mean those wings aren’t just for show?” Olena smiled.
“No, I can fly.”
“That must be wonderful. But anyway.”
“So you are going?” Fa’ss’th asked the fey woman. Olena nodded. “Good, take this then,” he said, concentrating for a moment. A flash of light leapt from one claw and bathed Olena for a moment.
“What does that do?” She asked.
“It links our minds, so that I can see and hear what you see and hear. It lasts forty minutes, so be quick.” Olena nodded and took off in a flash of bright color. Oren looked down at the lizard wizard.
“That’s a very convenient tool.”
Fa’ss’th grinned. “Of course it is.”
Long minutes passed as the group waited anxiously. Yorick sat down on the roots of a tree, whistling softly. Barak peered at the sky and fingered his spear. Suddenly Fa’ss’th growled under his breath.
“Fire up any defenses you have, folks. Someone has murdered the entire village . . . Olena can hear something laughing. It sounds hideous. She can see an enormous pile of corpses.”
“Oh dear,” Yorick said, looking slightly faint. “This sounds . . . bad.”
Demaris looked around, then pulled out her sliver of adamantine and sawed through a long straight tree branch. She stripped the bark and lesser branches quickly and methodically, turning it into a roughly serviceable staff. “If there’s going to be a fight, I should have some kind of weapon at least. Let’s go.”
“Olena just saw some kind of dog-headed humanoid,” Fa’ss’th relayed. Oren frowned.
“Sounds like a gnoll or maybe a flind,” the paladin explained.
Fa’ss’th nodded and began walking towards the village, concentrating as he went. A shell of energy formed around his body. Barak concentrated as well and the same effect surrounded him. Fine whiskers sprouted from his face and his walk smoothed out, catlike.
They reached the village in minutes and found Olena hiding behind some rubble near what appeared to be an inn. The village was quite thoroughly destroyed: buildings were rent in half and many had dark burnt holes in them. The bodies of, presumably, the villagers were piled in a heap in the village square, a heap that writhed constantly with the dark bodies of birds and rats. The stench was so foul it was nearly a physical force.
Barak’s face had gone white. “Tell me someone can set the inn on fire,” he ground out.
“No!” Olena hissed. “I heard someone crying out inside.” Oren put on his helmet and drew his sword silently. Fa’ss’th jumped over the rubble and marched up to the inn door, swinging it open, Barak quickly following him. A macabre spectacle greeted the two psions’ eyes. Four immense, hairy dog-headed humanoids crouched over a table bearing a human corpse. The corpse was split open and the monsters had apparently been gnawing on it.
Barak lifted his hand and brilliant fire formed in his palm, lancing out at the nearest gnoll. So intense was the heat that it seemed to explode, falling to the ground without even a cry. The human spoke, psionic power rendering his words into the gnoll language.
“Don’t bother begging.”
Fa’ss’th crouched slightly in the door, holding his claws up, the thumb-claws together, all digits spread. He grinned at the gnolls, showing his teeth. Olena jumped through the window, tearing the oiled paper and snapping the fragile wooden frame, her greatsword slashing into one of the monsters. Two of them moved to flank her while the third charged the lizard in the doorway. Fa’ss’th’s grin widened and fire erupted a second time as he completed his spell and Barak sent another ray lancing into the room. The gnoll crisped around the edges but still came on, its axe delivering a painful blow to the small lizard.
Outside, Oren and Demaris found themselves abruptly engaged as another gnoll, this one wearing a chain shirt, barreled around the corner. It had two axes in its hands and attacked ferociously. Oren edged Demaris behind him protectively and raised his shield. The paladin winced as a line of crackling energy passed in front of his face and took his opponent in the chest.
“Am I supposed to be impressed?” The gnoll snarled, and came on, foul greasy smoke rising through the holes in its armor. Barak gritted his teeth angrily and tried to get into position for another electrical blast. Oren buried his longsword in its neck and bore it to the ground, nearly beheading it.
“Good job,” Demaris said from behind the paladin’s shoulder.
“You sound surprised,” Oren said, sighing.
“No, grateful. Thanks.”
Sighing in resignation, Yorick clapped his hands together and one of the gnolls inside reeled in agony from an unseen source. Olena cut it down and whirled like a dancer, her sword burying itself deep in her second attacker. In moments the other gnolls were down. Barak stepped into the room to survey the damage. One of Olena’s attackers was still moving feebly. Yorick joined Barak and looked down at the gnoll.
“Shall we take it prisoner? We could find out who they are and why they are here.”
Without even changing his footing, Barak put his spear through the gnoll’s throat. “I know why it’s here. To kill,” he said with finality. Shaking with rage, Olena turned away. Barak closed his eyes and slumped, suddenly appearing exhausted. It took him a couple of tries to free the spearpoint from the gnoll’s throat. Demaris looked him over while the others searched the inn.
“You okay?” she asked, her face incredulous.
“No, I’m not ‘okay’,” he snapped.
“I see,” she replied. “Bite my head off, why don’t you.”
Olena and Fa’ss’th discovered that the private rooms were more or less shredded. The kitchen was awash with a foul soup composed of beer from broken barrels and spoiled food, but they did locate a trapdoor that appeared to lead into a cellar. Fa’ss’th hauled on the door and Olena climbed down the wooden stairs. A crowd of beaten, bedraggled women shrank away from her, huddling into the corners.
“It’s all right,” she stammered. “My name is Olena. The gnolls are dead.” The women stared at her with blank eyes. After a long moment, one took a few stumbling steps forward, cringing lest Olena prove to be hostile. Olena sheathed her sword and extended a hand, causing the woman to cringe even more. “It’s all right, I’m here to help you,” The woman stood in silence, but suffered Olena to touch her and guide her up the stairs and into the light. Dried blood was crusted over the woman’s lower lip and ran in dark trails down her chin.
Barak’s face when white again on seeing the woman. He bolted out into the street and fell to his hands and knees, vomiting noisily in the gutter. Demaris rolled her eyes and Oren glared at her.
“What?” she said as the paladin followed Barak out into the street. He put his hand on Barak’s shoulder and wordlessly offered a water flask. The psion took a mouthful of water, swirled it around in his mouth, then spat.
“I keep remembering what Sam told me, just before we left.”
“Oh?” the paladin asked, taking the water back.
“He said, ‘Barak, you can’t fix everything. No matter what you know or what you learn, or what you hope, or what you do, there will always be things you can't fix’. He was right.” Barak looked over at the dead bodies of the gnolls, burned from the sheer power of will. Barak’s will.
“Is he okay?” Fa’ss’th asked, coming up behind the paladin. Oren waved the lizard away.
“Leave him alone. I know you mean well, but just give him some space.” Fa’ss’th shrugged and ambled back inside. With a last look at Barak, Oren followed him.
Olena wetted a cloth with clean water and began cleaning the blood off the woman’s face. The woman winced, clearly in pain, but did not protest, and the other women began slowly moving up the stairs.
Yorick glanced at them, then at the room. “Er, hello. Why don’t you just try to, er, not look at things. Um. Do you know how many of these vile things attacked the village?” One of the women turned to him and opened her mouth, displaying the fact that her tongue had been torn out. He winced. “Oh my.”
The woman in Olena’s grip moved away suddenly, searching the room. She fastened on a piece of charred wood in the fire place and began scratching at a relatively clean spot on the wall.
“I cn writ a litle”
“Good!” Olena said, pleased.
“As I said, my name is Olena. My friends and I were on our way to Athkatla when we saw what happened here.”
“Sort of. What should I call you?”
“That’s a nice name, I like it. Do you know how many gnolls attacked your village?”
“Mani, they lft”
“They locked you down there?”
“We’ll find you a safe place to hide. The monsters won’t hurt you any more.”
Nan appeared to think for a moment. “Cav nerby . . . thy tak som wmen there”
Olena nodded and called to the others. “There are more woman hiding in a cave nearby.”
“Can you show us?” Nan nodded. Barak walked back into the room and picked up his spear. His face was still white but his eyes seemed clear. Determined.
“I can’t fix everything,” he said. “But I can fix some things. Will you lead us to the cave?”
Nan nodded again. “Then let’s go.”
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