I came back to awareness facedown in a melting snowdrift with spring air on my back. “… Oh, this is gonna rust,” I muttered into the mud. Or maybe I didn’t mutter. Honestly, with the ringing in my ears and the blindness following my return to the waking world, I couldn’t tell.
When I collected myself, I saw Asakku nearby and Elif and Gunnar belly-down looking over the side of a nearby ridge. Peeling myself out of the soggy bank, I approached them, crouching at Elif’s side. “So, uh… what are we doing today, folks?” I asked quietly. Asakku joined us a moment later.
“Weres,” Gunnar said, nodding and then indicating that we should be quiet. It didn’t tell me much, but given the circumstances I couldn’t blame him for being terse.
Silence reigned between us until a knot of figures appeared amongst the trees ahead, winding their way toward us. “We should hide,” Elif said, glancing over her shoulder..
I sighed. “Not my forte…”
“Oh, I have an idea…” A smile crossed Asakku’s face, and I instantly wanted nothing to do with what was about to happen to me.
About ten minutes later they had buried me thoroughly in the snow to disguise me from whatever we hid from—weres, I presumed—and I was cold, wet, and unimpressed. Their intent was… valid, I suppose, but very uncomfortable for me. As usual, I had no idea what was going on or why. And, if we’re being completely honest… given some of the things that happened previously, I’m not sure how much I actually do want to know.
Asakku took off down the ridge after some whispering amongst the group that I couldn’t quite hear and vanished into the foliage. I couldn’t see much what with my staying still in the snow, so all I could do was wait. I heard the others discussing their plans as the group approached, their footsteps crunching in the snow beyond.
“They have a demon,” Gunnar said, loud enough for me to hear.
Oh, do they… I felt a combination of adrenaline, fear, and revulsion course through me, and the snow no longer felt quite so cold. My loathing for the creatures filled me, and I felt a fierce grin peel the corners of my mouth upward.
All sorts of snarling and howling happening down below, and the others stood, readying weapons. I rose and shook the snow off me, rushing toward the edge of the ridge, looking around. What I saw made my stomach tighten. A whole pack of werewolves charged a tree down below where I saw Asakku huddled in a tree below. One man came up the slope after Helmy as Elif fumbled, trying to put him behind her to protect him.
Gunnar grinned, an expression that more bared his teeth than showed pleasure. He then lifted his hand and muttered under his breath. A few seconds later, a thick, heavy sleet began falling over the entire area the creatures occupied, obscuring them from view in the storm.
One of the two who didn’t transform emerged from the sleet, rushing toward Helmy, drawing a bardiche from his back, swinging the pommel into Helmy’s back with a thick, meaty crunch. Elif let out a sound I’d never heard from her and stared at the man, her pallor going first pale and then ruddy as fury, pain, and horror wrote their stories across her face.
Rolling onto his back, Helmy opened the man from hipbone to hipbone with a groan. I stepped forward, striking the man with my blade with a snarl, and Elif crept around him while I moved, ramming Saga into the man’s spine. In the middle of the stab, the axe head of the weapon shifted into a spade blade, doused in blood.
Gunnar continued chanting, closing his eyes as he wove more magic. Behind me, fire roared across the forest, and I heard a sick, pained howling from off to my left. Then Elif struck again, using the hook of her shovel, she wrenched Saga into the man’s spine, and breaking it apart. Intestines and offal spewed everywhere, painting the melting snow crimson, brown, and yellow.
A swirling vortex of leaves appeared before Gunnar, parting to reveal a gryphon, which shrieked and launched into the air, heading for the demon on the other side of the storm. It snapped at the other bardiche-wielding man, and the man let out a surprised yelp and ducked, shouting something I couldn’t quite make out at the gryphon.
Beyond us, the werewolves emerged from the sleet, the thick, wet ice clinging to their fur and dripping from their hides. As one, they turned their eyes on us and released a chorus of snarls. A half-smile curled my face. If I were honest with myself, I had to admit it was moments like this that left me feeling alive.
Helmy pulled a pouch from his belt and hurled something glittering and golden at the pack. The demon appeared nearby the pack, baring its ugly face. It twitched its long, clawed fingers, and a swirling, black orb appeared beside it, spewing shadowy mist.
I rushed forward, sliding down the embankment and bellowing at the demon, calling forth the spirit of Bahamut to force the demon to come fight me and only me. Because fuck him in particular.
Gunnar flicked his fingers, and a ball of fire exploded in the center of the werewolf pack, causing them to crumple, ashen and brittle, on the ground. Asakku rushed forward, ramming his spear into the creature. It slumped to the ground with a gurgling sigh, curling into a ball before going still. Behind Asakku, a man stepped out of the sleet, and Asakku spun to meet him, throwing a furious stab at the man with his spear, though it slid to the side. The other were staggered out of the sleet, feeling his way forward and wandering into the trees beyond.
The man that emerged from the sleet shook his head, attacking Asakku with his bardice, stabbing him in the ribs with the tip of the weapon. Asakku grunted, and blood darkened his robes. Behind me, I heard a few notes of music. Helmy doing… whatever he did.
Before us, the portal shuddered and birthed a second demon, which looked around a moment and bared its teeth against us. The other demon rushed forward toward me, as bade, and I sliced off one of its arms in reply. I raised my sword to try and attack, but I slid in the sleet and lost my footing.
Elif jogged down the hill and hooked the demon with the end of Saga, yanking. It made a rather unpleasant noise and snarled, twitching and pouring blood. The gryphon shrieked in the distance, and Asakku snarled, ramming his spear into the bardiche-wielding man’s chest. The ice climbed up, coating the man’s head, and then Asakku wrenched the spear free and shattered his head.
A noxious, green gas filled the air around me, I coughed once, and the stench of rotten eggs and cabbage filled my sinuses, though I kept my focus. I stepped in and slashed at the werewolf on my way past. Elif curled over herself, vomiting everywhere. Again. Poor thing. Though after the first round of puking, she swallowed hard and focused on the werewolf. She buried her face in her arm and slapped the werewolf with the shovel, and the creature crumpled. Elif then scurried off toward the edge of the stink.
The gryphon continued whatever it was doing off yonder, shrieking in fury. Asakku closed on the demon and rammed his spear into its back. Helmy emerged from the stench and caught its side, but not deeply. The demon spun, trying to flee, dipping beneath Asakku’s reach and vanishing off into the trees.
Drawing on my magic, I hurled a magical javelin at the fleeing demon, though it fell short. I really need to work on my aim. Elif went up behind it and rammed Saga into its back as it fled, slamming the demon into the slush and wet earth beneath it.
Moving forward, I rammed my sword into the remaining were, speaking prayers of Bahamut. My sword flared with holy light and ripped into the beast. Elif moved around to attack the creature from behind, but slipped in the mud and dropped Saga in the dirt at her feet. The werewolf slashed at the gryphon, finally felling it. It vanished into smoke, leaving the wolf furious and confused.
Lunging forward, I rammed my sword into its chest and pulled it free, slashing it across the gut and opening a deep, bloody wound there. Elif rolled Nighthawk into her hands, ramming slashing it across the werewolf’s ribs.
The wolf slid past me, putting Asakku between him and Elif and slashed Asakku, catching him in the ribs and laying him open all over again. He then stuck the point of the blade into Asakku’s back, making him cry out in sudden pain.
Rearing back, Gunnar spat acid at the beast, burning a hole into its flesh on its back where it faced Asakku. The wolf howled in pain, a sound that left my ears ringing at that proximity. Asakku steeled himself and drove his spear into the werewolf’s chest.
Asakku snarled and struck it in the face with his spear. Helmy rushed forward, punching the beast in the back with all his rather modest strength. I stepped forward and rammed my blade up into its body through its back. The werewolf slumped forward, collapsing onto Elif. Elif yelped and beheaded him in retaliation.
“I wanna keep its head,” Elif said with a grin.
“Trophy! He has a crown over there. We should put it on the head.”
“It’s going to rot,” I said, sighing.
“I’ll taxidermy it!” she chirped.
“…Why do I spent time with you people,” I said, rubbing my hand over my face, leaving a smear of blood and mud across my skin. Gross.
We explored the bodies, as usual, collecting the various items together. Two dark grey cloaks, a fine dagger, a sword, and a helm with an iron crown decorated with images of many predators stood out.
“The cloaks are designed to provide resistance,” Gunnar said.
“So… if I may,” I said, moving some of the bodies into a pile, “What exactly are we doing here?”
“I don’t really remember, but I believe we were here to kill the guy with the crown…” Gunnar said, looking confused.
“Okay, we were looking for things to do after you guys vanished. We figured we’d collect some werewolf blood and killed some rather pathetic ones we found in a cave. They had correspondence from… someone who said that… yeah… the king was gonna be here. We decided to ambush him. We met up with someone, but I don’t remember who. They wanted us to do it.”
“It was some group who wanted us to hunt werewolves…”
“Do you remember where you met them…?” I asked, tilting my head.
“In a town.”
I looked over to Helmy with a sigh. “Do you remember where they were?”
“Yeah, we went to town after we discovered the werebears, or wereboars, or… whatever they were. No, wait, we came here from a town to the south, and we came to investigate a burnt out town attacked by werecreatures. We found it empty and followed tracks to a cave nearby where we found werebears. Or boars. Whichever.”
I picked up the head. “Well, we should take this to whoever wanted it…” I said.
“But… I wanted to keep it,” Elif said, frowning.
“We should probably bring this to whoever hired you to get it,” I said, moving the jaws of the werewolf head like it was talking. I think I need more sleep. The others just sort of stared at me, but I shrugged and shoved the head into the bag along with the magical items. We could get those investigated either by Darvin or by someone more qualified than us.”
“I’ll carry the helm!” Elif demanded.
I gave her a look. “Magical things sometimes work on contact. I don’t want you to end up—”
“But I want it.”
Swallowing my response, I let out a slow breath. “Elif, we don’t know what it will do to you.”
“Is it evil?”
“…No.” I said, using my senses.
“Then it’s mine.” She plopped it into her rucksack and bounced off down the road.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose for a moment and took several fortifying breaths before following.
During the walk, Elif stopped and looked around for a second. “I think… I think I’m gonna wear this.” She then put the crown on her helmet, and a sizzling sound came from the helm as it sealed to the surface.
I frowned at her as she adopted this sort of… distant look on her face. “I am the Empress of all Lycanthropes. This crown is mine.”
“…This… this is a problem. Am I the only one who has a problem with this?” I said, looking around.
“Well… I mean… I want to… it’s mine. I can do whatever I want." Elif scowled at me.
I stared at her and tilted my head to the side.
An argument broke out, mostly me trying to convince the others to help me take the crown from her. I insisted I didn’t want to hurt her, but.. everything seemed wrong. My gut was screaming that something wasn’t right. Gunnar dismissed it, shrugging. Helmy confronted me, angry and threatening to never lift a hand to assist me again. Asakku, the one person I could have relied on, refused to assist, saying he wouldn’t do it if not everyone in the group agreed. I knew they wouldn’t.
I walked away into the forest, leaving the rest of them. It was clear to me that something was happening to Elif, and none of the others—even Asakku—were willing to assist me in helping her. I couldn’t sit by and watch someone I almost considered a friend be run roughshod by magic and do nothing.
The trees welcomed me, and I walked a short ways and sat down on a rock, peeling off my armor and starting to clean it to try and pull myself out of my thoughts. I felt sick down in my bones. Maybe in my heart. I didn’t know—I tried to ignore the feeling, but it didn’t go away.
Dudley sat awkwardly on his dog and looked around for awhile. “So… what are we doing?”
“Currently? Currently we are sitting here, cleaning my armor.”
“What about your friends?”
I snorted and shook my head. “I think I’m going to head north. Back to the order. This insanity has gone too far. None of them listen to me and treat me like an idiot. I am sick of it. They are going to end up in trouble or dead or hurt, or hurt other people. Every time I turn around. Every. Time, Dudley. And the one person I thought would, perhaps, listen to me ignored me in favor of that foolishness. Asakku, of all people, should know better.”
Dudley sighed and looked down. “I heard.” He shifted how he was sitting. “So, we’re headed north?”
“I don’t know, Dudley. I’ll figure it out.” I pulled one of my gauntlets off to clean it, catching a glimpse of the lightning tattoo that wound its way down my arm. Regardless of what I chose, I’d be right back with them whether I wanted to or not.
“All right then.” He dismounted and led his dog over to the stream to drink, leaving me to my thoughts. I continued to clean my armor of werewolf blood, demon ichor, mud, and whatever else I came across. The chill of the spring air sunk into my wet clothing, and I began shivering into the heavy cloak. “Fools,” I growled, jamming my hands through my hair.
“Right. I’m going home.” I stood, getting my bearings by looking around. I put my armor back on. “We’re headed north, Dudley. If that damn lightning thing happens, just head back to Whitehorn, but I am hoping it doesn’t. Not that I have a say on it.”
“If you’re sure, Sir,” he said. “I am ever at your side.”
We made it about a week north before I entered the crystal prison. The world blurred and faded, and then… I found myself blind and deaf and on the path beside the others. They continued on, ignoring me. I said nothing and waited until the confusion cleared and trudged along behind them like a dutiful dog. What I say, what I think doesn’t matter.
It took us some time—near a week, I think—to reach Whitehorn, but I couldn’t stomach talking to them. What was there to say? When we reached the city, Elif addressed me for the first time. “I need that head. I want to taxidermy it.”
I handed her the bag of holding, and she accepted it. I then headed to the tavern to try and down my sorrows, but after quite a few bottles of whiskey and scotch and plenty of other things, I discovered two things: I could no longer get drunk and drinking that much alcohol made me need to urinate. A lot.
Three prostitutes, an elf in a cloak, and a few craftsmen were scattered about the room. Eventually, I gave up trying to drown myself in booze and approached the elf. “I don’t recognize you. Have you been here long?”
“Since it became a city, yes. Not much work, but… it’s safe. And peaceful.”
We talked for a bit, and he offered service. I asked him what he did, and he said he killed for hire. If I had the energy, the thought would have angered me, but I was so damn tired I just couldn’t bring myself to care. I left the tavern as the others emerged from the state building, talking amongst one another. I only paid enough attention to know their destination. Our destination.
Despite having cured Darvin, they had interest in completing the spell to summon a demigod. Perhaps to cure Gunnar’s “gift” from the deck. They said something about going to the City of a Thousand Nights and hijacking a slave trading boat, killing the crew, and taking it off to the West.
They left the city, heading to Southport, and I followed.