She scrutinised the landscape. It looked much the same as it had for weeks.
"You're certain the trappers did as they were bid?"
The look Sascia gave her verged on exasperated. "For the third time, yes. They assured me of as much. You would not wish their work to be noticeable, would you?"
Lana accepted the logic. "Sorry. I don't want to overlook any detail, no matter how trivial. I'm -"
"- on edge," Sascia completed. "We both are. Don't let it rob you of your focus."
Lana nodded. Of course, the waiting was making her agitated. The lack of control rattled her more. It had been hours since she despatched the last taunt, yet still they waited. "Our preparations took weeks, and cost us a great deal of gold. Surely we have done enough... haven't we?" Through the wool of her robe she felt the outline of the vials in one of her deeper pockets. A pair for each of them... they meant a little extra reassurance, and could mean all the difference during the coming fight. Valuable protection... yet to Lana it seemed as indispensable that Sascia had come along. Luln was a larger settlement than Glaston; no doubt the townsmistress had pressing matters at home yet she had set them aside to embark with Lana on their perilous undertaking. Nor had she fussed about doing so.
A shrug. "We will find out soon enough."
"You know," Lana said earnestly, "I feel safer with you around. I'm glad you're here."
Sascia smiled grimly. "So you keep telling me."
The females retreated to the ramshackle hut by the water's edge to share a light meal and go over their plan for what might be the last time. Once finished, Lana mounted her carpet and flew to the far side of the river, bringing out her tinderbox and shaking its contents onto the ground. Out tumbled four snails. Her dagger flashed and each snail expanded to become a dead cow. She tossed a pair of glowing coins into the midst of the corpses before withdrawing.
Hours dragged by yet nothing happened. The sky darkened and Lana found herself yawning despite the anticipation of danger which might be imminent. It grew later and eventually Sascia insisted that Lana should sleep whilst she kept watch. Allowing her eyes to close took little effort. The next thing she knew daylight was streaming through the hut's open doorway.
"Whuh...?" Lana pushed aside her blanket and blinked the sleep from her eyes. The realisation settled on her. "They never came."
"You needed rest so I let you sleep."
"That was kind." All the same, she could not conceal her disappointment. "Allow me to return the favour."
She brought out her spellbook and recited the cantrip which made it hover in place while Sascia settled down. A while later, satisfied that she had memorised the spells she needed, she closed the book and stepped outside to take in her surroundings once more. An ancient boat lay half submerged at the end of the jetty a short way off. The ferry crossing had fallen into disuse years before, ever since the rise of the Black Eagle Barony. The old trade route to the Shires had likewise been abandoned and the surrounding area was littered with uninhabited homesteads. It was a peaceful place but equally there was something ominous about it. She knew from conversations with Alexius Korrigan that this area of Karameikos remained largely unexplored. Perhaps when her apprentices were more experienced, she mused, they might serve the kingdom by mapping the region. Perhaps they would have more pressing concerns. She always seemed to. A hint of spring in the air filled her with new enthusiasm for the projects she had planned but time seemed as limited as ever.
Such musings vanished from her mind when she glanced upriver and saw two large humanoids emerge from a stand of trees to crouch by the water's edge. They were dressed in furs and carried spears. They did not appear to have noticed her. Silently she withdrew to the hovel, keeping an eye on the ogres and mentally willing them to clear off. She needed to conserve her magic for her true opponent, the one who might arrive without a moment's notice. She would not be less than ready when the time came. The ogres showed no signs of approaching the hut but, annoyingly, were in no rush to depart.
Sascia remained asleep beneath the enchanted blanket which Lana had insisted she borrow in substitution for her own. There was no need to wake her, Lana thought. She had removed her helmet to sleep, allowing her chestnut curls to spill freely around her shoulders. Her sword and shield remained within easy reach. Asleep, her expression eased a little from the perpetually gruff expression to which Lana had grown accustomed. She was prettier asleep, definitely. Lana still had difficulty visualising Sascia donning a gown, or attending the King's Court without the courtiers indulging in mocking behaviour. It wouldn't be warranted; Sascia was worth a dozen of them. It still baffled her that the King refused to accept Sascia's versions of events over his cousin the Black Eagle's. She needed more voices to speak up in her favour, Lana had decided. She would endeavour to be one of them.
She peeked out the window. Were those bloody ogres ever going to leave?
The ogres stuck around for a while, seemingly trying to spear fish with little luck. Eventually one managed and held the wriggling catch triumphantly up in the air. The other made a grab for it but only succeeded in knocking the spear out of the hand of the other whereupon the fish slipped off and landed back in the river. The first ogre roared in rage and a brawl ensued. Eventually the two battered, bloody combatants lay on the ground exhausted. After a while they got up and moved away from the river. Lana lost sight of them amongst the trees.
Again her fingers roved to the pockets of her robes, feeling for the outlines and counting them. One, two, three and four - the stoppered vials were all accounted for. Again she questioned whether her preparations had been enough, had they dispensed with the need to rely on luck? She would not forego having a little luck on her side, were it available to her. Just enough, she prayed to whichever Immortals might be within earshot.
Sascia awoke in the early afternoon and the pair spent the rest of the day waiting. At one point Lana lifted her crystal ball and peered into its depths. Satisfied with what she saw she nodded to Sascia and set the device aside.
Night fell and they continued to wait. After a few hours a howl rose in the distance but it was only one and was not repeated. Sascia spoke of her experiences growing up in the shadow of the Black Eagle Baron and the two swapped tales of their various adventures.
As night drew on, Lana found it increasingly difficult to keep her her eyes open.
"I might rest," she said quietly. "Could you wake me in an hour?"
Sascia nodded. It reassured Lana that her companion seemed fully alert, therefore she allowed her mind to drift and was soon asleep.
The next thing she knew Sascia was waking her by the shoulder, her expression one of urgency. Immediately she knew.
"Listen." Lana did so and heard a distant howl. It was answered by another and then another. Minutes passed and there were more howls. An hour or so passed and the howling grew louder as the chorus gained more voices.
Her heart racing, Lana gripped Sascia's forearm with a mixture of alarm and excitement. "That can only be the howling of the Pack. We must make our final preparations, and be swift."
Sascia nodded and took her place on the carpet, fitting a silver-tipped bolt into her crossbow and laying out more in front of her while Lana began a sequence of spells.
"The bait!" Lana whispered to Sascia as the howls steadily increased. Sascia nodded her understanding and departed in the direction of the opposite bank, her feet leaving the ground. Lana watched her companion depart; when she flew back moments later fresh blood was dripping from her unsheathed blade. Lana waved her hand and the area from which Sascia was returning became swathed in mist, an eerie glow at its centre.
The howls became a constant wall of sound. It was impossible to discern the direction from which they emanated, indeed they seemed to come from every direction and were getting closer all the time. Lana felt her flesh turn to goosebumps, not as a result of the cool night air. It was as if a brutal, primordial force were approaching... and it was. The dark aspect of nature in Karameikos, the untamed fury of the wild was close to hand. A curious thing, she mused, that she had deliberately sought to attract such danger. She was unsure whether it heightened or lessened the extreme fright which threatened to consume her.
She brought out her crystal ball and stared into it. A vision of her prey formed... swimming across a wide river. Reaching the far side he threw back his head and howled. Lana heard the howl with her own ears and the proximity sent a shiver along her spine.
Howls continued to echo through the night as the two females took to the carpet, flattening their bodies against the woven fabric. The carpet lifted into the air and crossed the river, settling into a position flush with the canopy of trees. They were afforded a clear view of the river on both sides, as well as the surrounding woods.
Minutes passed, seeming like a lifetime. Then as the howling continued came snarls, growls and the snapping of twigs and trampled leaves as a great number of beasts were heard to approach at speed through the Achelos Woods.
All at once the Pack emerged from the woods to the south of the ferry crossing. They had not come along the abandoned trail, Lana realised, and occupied both sides of the river. There must have been two score wolves of varying sizes and colours but there was no mistaking their leader - huge, savage and at the very front of the pack on the eastern side of the river. The moonlight caught one eye and it gleamed silver.
Instinctively Lana flattened herself even more against the carpet; it sensed her trepidation and sank a couple of inches into the treetop. Her messages had managed to lure him, she had well and truly tugged the wolf's tail.
She wondered whether to strike now, early, in the hope of incapacitating most of the Pack. Were the surrounding undergrowth to rise up, only Silver Eye might break free. She worried about his howl though. Whilst the Pack had already begun their earsplitting cacophony, their leader's howl was especially frightening. Lana had succumbed to its magic in the past. She had no wish to do so again; the memory still chilled her. No, she told herself, now was not the moment to strike. She would preserve the element of surprise a moment longer.
The majority of the Pack accompanied Silver Eye. The smaller group, consisting of a dozen or so wolves was on the side of the river which Lana had shrouded in mist. They showed every sign of heading into the fog, lured by the lights and the smell of blood. She held her breath in anticipation as they plunged heedless into the fog. To her delight, crashes and howls of distress ensued, indicating that the concealed pits had caught something.
The sounds of snapping, snarling and tearing of flesh emanated from the fog accompanied by fainter whimpers and scrabbling sounds.
On the opposite side of the river, Silver Eye's group reached the hovel and stopped to sniff around.
"Damn," Lana swore as quietly as she could. "The shack bears our scents. That's our first oversight."
Silver Eye quickly lost interest in the hovel and turned his attention to the fog on the other side of the river. He sniffed the air and with a growl dashed down the muddy bank to the water's edge where he plunged into the river without hesitation. The others followed. Lana wondered whether any of them realised that the water level along that section of the river was unnaturally low... around seven feet lower than it ought to have been.
Meanwhile the sounds of trapped and feasting wolves continued to resound within the fog.
"Look!" whispered Sascia, pointing. Lana saw what had caught her notice. One of the lights within the fog could be seen moving. A moment later, a wolf emerged from the fog with a coin in its teeth.
"That's not part of the plan," Lana muttered, instantly vexed. Couldn't that wolf have fallen into her pits like the others had done? She wondered what level of threat this posed, what disruption might arise. She decided it would count for nothing if she could retain the element of surprise. She returned her attention to Silver Eye, swimming powerfully against the flow of the Achelos River. She wondered whether to cast a spell of holding just then, but could not risk him being swept downstream or drowning. That would defeat her careful planning.
Silver Eye had nearly crossed the river and was nearing the bank - a muddy expanse, seven feet higher than it would have been but for Lana's magic. She was glad of the additional obstacle for the wolves to negotiate while seeking solid ground. The wolf with the coin was standing on the bank, clearly waiting for Silver Eye. To Lana's relief, no other wolves had emerged from the fog.
Silver Eye reached the river bank and, seemingly tireless, bounded up it toward his fellow with the coin, snarling angrily. The rest of the Pack found the climb out of the river more arduous; some slipped and slid in the mud to splash back down in the water. A few dire wolves that were at the back of the pack overtook them and scrambled up the bank.
Calmly Lana extended her hand and focused on her quarry. Silver Eye embodied all the raw fury of the wild but she was confident her magic could be as powerful. A few carefully pronounced words and the seemingly irresistible force became an immovable object. Incredulous at her good fortune, she allowed herself a small smile.
Not wishing to waste a moment, she pointed at the river which erupted in lightning, motes of energy dancing across its surface in a twenty foot radius. Wolves and a direwolf howled in anguish before being silenced. Moments later, the vegetation along the bank began to expand creating a corral of branches, brush and thorns around Silver Eye, leaving an area around him clear and separating him from the dozen or so wolves on the bank...
... save one. The lone wolf who had lifted the glowing coin was at Silver Eye's side and seemed to be looking right at Lana.
Sascia shook her head in silent admiration.
Lana manoeuvred the carpet to within thirty yards of Silver Eye and glared at his companion from a height. "You stand alone!" she called. "Yield and no harm will come to you. How do you answer?"
The wolf's response was to throw back his head and howl. Lana paused, wondering whether that was a gesture of defiance or the anguish of a frustrated and defeated foe. Realising the wolves on the bank were packed together, she gestured and caught most of them in the phantasm of a sudden blizzard. Not all... however it appeared all the direwolves had been incapacitated.
The lone wolf slunk into the shadows, withdrawing as far into the undergrowth as he could - which was not far given the impenetrable briars and the proximity of the glowing coin where it had been dropped.
Sascia laughed. "The Pack doesn't seem so fearsome from up here. If only all their victims could be here to see this."
Lana nodded but could not bring herself to share the mirth. "We are justified in what we do this night. Fortune has smiled on us thus far but -"
At that moment a howl sounded in the distance, seemingly answering that of the lone wolf a moment earlier.
Lana's ire rose and she shouted an incantation at the lone wolf. Like Silver Eye before him, he froze on the spot. The carpet closed and a second incantation caused an unseen spray of oil to douse Silver Eye's hulking form from muzzle to tail. Sascia's nose wrinkled.
Lana nodded. She had rendered the scent as heady and overpowering as possible. "If he can't smell us, he won't manage to track us after we leave."
Her fingers strayed to the belt of her attire, checking her wand was there. Again, she felt for the stoppered vials. The moment was to hand, she didn't want anything to disrupt her victory. If anything did, at least she would not be without defences.
"Can you keep an eye out?"
Sascia trained her crossbow on the remaining wolves on the bank though it seemed they were hanging back for the moment, uncertain of what to do.
The carpet descended into the miniature clearing amid the undergrowth. Lana hopped off and approached Silver Eye, trepidatious despite the apparent success of her spellcasting. To her relief neither of the frozen wolves reacted. She closed to within a foot of her prey. In his lupine form he was immense, the size of a horse. He was naked but for the collar he wore around his neck. The collar she had scried upon countless times during the past weeks. It was simple leather fixed with sturdy metal clasps. A small lock appeared to hold it together, but there was nothing obviously unusual about it.
Not wishing to waste time, she pointed at the lock and recited her first incantation, then a second. She wondered whether her magic had worked, for the collar did not drop to the ground nor were there any telltale clicks. Wary, she stepped up to Silver Eye and became acurely aware of the warmth of his breath (though mercifully she could not smell it, only the pungency of flowers). His good eye rolled in its socket, filled with pure murderous rage. The ruined side of his face fizzled and popped, the tiny amount of silver in that socket causing the skin surrounding it to perpetually burn and blister.
Lana tugged at the collar but could not remove it. Frustration bubbled up within her. She wracked her thoughts, summoning all the reserves of her intellect... but came to the slow conclusion that she had no further magic which would open the collar. Curse that malicious Bargle... of course, he had not meant the collar to be easily removed. The visible lock served no purpose. There was no other explanation - he had imbued the collar with what else but... a curse. One which Lana was powerless to negate.
"Sascia," Lana said weakly, knowing what she was about to ask would be futile, "can you use your strength to tear it off?"
Sascia resolutely grabbed the collar and attempted to wrench it apart. The strength of a hill giant pulsed in her veins... but to no avail. Her tug only succeeded in heaving Silver Eye's massive form into the surrounding undergrowth. She extricated him and hauled him back to the centre of the clearing.
In a final desperate attempt Lana drew her dagger and hacked at the collar. There was a slight eldritch glow as the enchanted objects came into contact but she only managed to etch the leather slightly.
With a howl of annoyance, Lana gripped her dagger and sank to her knees. All was not lost... yet the task was to take longer to achieve than she had expected. Were she and Sascia up to the task, though?
With no other inspiration she beckoned Sascia to withdraw and spoke to her in a whisper. "We're not defeated but we'll need help from a cleric. I could approach Sherlane Halaran," she bit her lip, "but persuading him to release Silver Eye back into the wild will be less than straightforward. This is all I can think of... will you accompany me?"
Sascia looked unsure. "I only know Baron Halaran by reputation. I have no love for the Church of Karameikos but I understand the people of Threshold to be content under his rule. If he will give aid I have no objections but do you really have any need of me? I have done little enough this night."
Lana was visibly disappointed. "You had my back this night, Sascia. My magic mightn't have worked, in which case you would have been fighting for both our lives." She paused for a moment. "You and he might stand apart on religious grounds, yet you have more in common than you might realise. For one thing, you have a common foe in Bargle. Threshold is far from Specularum, as is Luln. I would enjoy your continued company aboard my carpet, though if matters require your attention in Luln I will understand."
Sascia weighed up her options. "Very well. I will gladly accompany you if I will not slow ... LOOK OUT!"
The four forgotten wolves had crept up, slipping through a gap in the undergrowth. One leapt for Lana's throat but Sascia interposed her shield and knocked it to the ground. She drew her sword and in one great cleave parted the wolf's head from its body. The other three fled toward the river.
After giving Sascia her thanks Lana intoned the words to a further spell and gestured at Silver Eye, however he failed to transform as she had intended.
She cursed her run of bad luck. "I have little more magic of any use," she declared miserably, "and the freezing effect will wear off in a few hours. If we are to deliver him to Threshold, we will need to restrain him by mundane means." The glory of her earlier spellcasting, the magic which had worked so well, had well and truly dissipated... "Did you bring any rope?"
"Always," Sascia answered, producing a coil from her pack. "In truth I am relieved to know you are still human after all and there is a limit to your capabilities. I was beginning to doubt it."
"Human, yes," Lana replied with a bashful grin.
Sascia looked towards the east where there were the first hints of light in the sky.
"How long until sunrise do you think?"
Lana too gazed at the horizon, and responded in a murmur. "Not long at all. Let us make haste while we can."
"I've bound him as securely as I know how," Sascia declared, "though the bindings will be of little use if he reverts to human form."
Lifting his bulk onto the carpet proved easier thanks to Sascia's Giant Might. Lana dispelled the sprawling plant growth and the carpet departed at speed, albeit burdened by the weight of its passengers. Sascia flew under her own power to lighten the load and Lana reassured herself that the carpet seemed to be flying faster than any wolf could run.
It was a distance to Threshold, she knew... Silver Eye would inevitably regain his movement long before they arrived. She tried to not dwell on the fact she had only a single spell remaining to her.
The carpet flew east over hills as swiftly as its magic would permit. The sun had risen by the time Lana's spell wore off and movement returned to Silver Eye's limbs. Lana was left feeling acutely vulnerable as a low growl rumbled in the werewolf's chest. Sascia had a silver dagger poised at his throat.
"Can you understand me beast?" Her tone was guttural. There was a longstanding animosity between the two; Sascia had fought Silver Eye on numerous occasions. At Lana's request she had recounted the encounters in as much detail as she could muster. "Move and I'll slit your throat."
The growling continued then he began to thrash about.
"Damn," said Sascia, gripping the edge of the carpet tightly. "I mean it - stop it or you're dead."
The prisoner showed no signs of cooperating and his struggles became more violent. Someone - any one of them - was about to go off the carpet.
Lana urgently lowered the carpet and brandished her wand. "Cease this! We carry wolfsbane in liquid form and we will not hesitate to use it. If you co-operate, I promise we will not harm you. We wish to help you."
She could not tell whether her words registered, and she found herself thinking it was a long time since Silver Eye had been a rational being. All the same, his fur began to recede, as did his snout. His limbs remained tangled but the bindings keeping his jaw shut merely fell away.
He spat venomous curses, the like of which Lana believed she had not heard before, and fixed Sascia with his good eye. "Do it bitch. Dying don't scare me. I'll take yer neck if ya don't."
A dangerous look crossed Sascia's face. She looked ready to end Silver Eye's sorry existence right then and there.
"Stop this both of you!" Lana locked gazes with Silver Eye. "Do you wish to be rid of your collar or not?"
The look Silver Eye gave her was strange. A blister on the left of his face sizzled and popped.
"Can't get it off though can ya? What is it? Want me to kill fer ya? Want to be tha one wi' tha leash? Hah!"
His laugh was a sharp bark, free from mirth. In human form the collar hung a little looser around his neck but, given the thickness of his neck, not that much looser.
"I have no wish to hold your leash." Lana sat up stiffly, trying to focus on keeping the carpet moving while she spoke. "I had thought to remove it entirely, destroy it even. You're right about one thing - I can't remove it." She let the comment hang. "... but I know a man who can."
"Hah!" Silver Eye hacked and spat off the side of the carpet. "Know a man who can? So do I but he won't 'cause he don't wanna die. Does this man o' yers wanna? Thinks I'll roll over and be 'is pup maybe? I won't. I'll chew 'is bones. I'll chew all yer bones. Yer all meat ta me! Hah hah hah!"
He spat again, this time in Lana's direction but he had stopped struggling so violently. In that moment Lana thought of the numerous times she had scried upon him. Many a time she had seen him engaged in violence, chasing prey in the wild, feasting on a kill, strands of raw meat hanging from his slavering jaws... Equally, she had seen him in his human form, alone and miserable, devoid of purpose, sometimes committing acts of random violence. Whether that could be attributed to his insanity, his alcoholism or some other factor she could not tell.
The carpet sailed on while Silver Eye remained in comparatively subdued form. For a while Lana thought it best not to speak lest she disrupt his calm; she let the carpet cover additional ground. After a while she said:
"The man I know might cause the undoing of the man you know... if he agrees to help. I haven't suffered the horrible pain you have endured," her tone was matter-of-fact rather than pitiful, "but a person can hurt in other ways. I have hurt enough to make me HATE Bargle." She fixed Silver Eye with a hard, determined look. "I can say that freely. I can seek his downfall because I don't wear a collar."
Silver Eye leered at her. "You want Bargle dead? Fine. Take collar off. I'll rip 'is guts out through 'is arse."
Lana took a moment to relish the thought. "Then we are agreed. I will do what I can to grant you your freedom." She looked away and allowed herself a smile of satisfaction which neither Silver Eye or Sascia could see.
Silver Eye ceased his struggles and eventually lapsed into a fitful sleep. Even in human form he growled like a beast.
Sascia gave her companion a look of disbelief but said nothing.
Although the carpet began the day flying away from the Achelos River, the way it wound through the hills meant it ended up on the carpet's left side for several hours. Late in the afternoon Lana was too tired to continue and set down on a hilltop with a commanding view over the area. To the north lay the Black Peaks. To the south she saw the northern edge of the Radlebb Woods. In no direction was there any sign of civilization. It was the sort of location that reminded her how wild a land Karameikos was.
Sascia bundled Silver Eye roughly off the carpet and resecured all of his bonds. Even without the benefit of magic she was strong - much stronger than she looked - and although Silver Eye resisted and cursed at her she overpowered him and tied him to a rock. She attempted to gag him but in the blink of an eye he extended his teeth and Sascia was forced to quickly withdraw her hand. He made snarling noises before lapsing into a sullen silence.
She settled herself beside Lana, laying her unsheathed sword between them.
"Are you sure this is a wise course of action?"
"Wise?" Lana smiled through her fatigue. "Perhaps not, though such opportunities seldom present themselves."
"What I mean," Sascia said, "is that I want Bargle dead too and relish the idea of setting one of his own servants loose on him but what will happen if Silver Eye actually kills him?"
Lana kept an eye on Silver Eye to ensure he remained asleep. "Few in Karameikos might hope to challenge Bargle and succeed. My master was not able to. I might have had stood a chance with the Staff I once carried. I am not sure Silver Eye is up to the task but it is worth the attempt. I wish retribution, as does he. As do many others." She gave Sascia a grave look. "If Bargle dies, then it is meant to be so. The Black Eagle will be stripped of a powerful ally. If he does not die, well... in truth I expect he will not. But I will keep trying. One way or another, he will pay for his crimes."
Sascia nodded her agreement.
Lana yawned. "If I rest, would you keep watch?"
Another nod. Lana bedded down and although uncomfortable in the extreme exhaustion overcame her and she fall asleep. She awoke to the sound of howling and Sascia's shouts. In an instant she was on her feet. Silver Eye had assumed his bestial, bipedal form and was howling at the moon. Sascia was trying to discourage him with the flat of her blade. He stared past her at Lana, his ruined eye glinting in the moonlight.
"Awake? Good. I don't want to wait. I have a thirst for blood. You don't want to be here much longer." Wolf howls close at hand backed up his assertion.
The females accepted that they had no choice but to do as their captive dictated. Lana realised she was too tired to memorise new spells but there was nothing else for it; Sascia bundled Silver Eye back onto the carpet and soon they were on their way.
Sascia mentioned to Lana how Silver Eye had nearly relieved himself on the carpet but she had pushed him away in the nick of time.
Ahead of them loomed a spur of the Black Peaks, silhouetted against the light of dawn. Lana willed the carpet to rise and was rewarded with a view of the valley beyond, through which the King's Road could be seen winding. Verge, she knew, lay a mile or two ahead. Secure in the knowledge of her whereabouts she plotted a course up the Windrush river bound straight for Threshold.
Before noon that day the carpet descended into the inner courtyard of Tarnskeep, the fortified home of Patriarch Sherlane of Threshold. The Baron's guards hesitated only slightly when Lana presented her six-and-a-half-foot tall naked prisoner and asked for them to escort the trio to Sherlane Halaran. Knowing who she was, they did as she asked and she once again found herself in the presence of the Patriarch of Threshold.
"Welcome back to Threshold Lady Budanter." His skin looked to be hanging a little looser around his face than Lana recalled but his eyes were as bright and alert as ever. "How can I help you?"
"My Lord." She curtsied deeply. "I seek a favour... one which I fear will not be to your liking. Before that I should introduce those who accompany me. Firstly, may I present Townsmistress Sascia of Luln. And -" she braced herself, "- our prisoner, the lycanthrope called Silver Eye."
A nod and a polite smile. "Mistress Sascia."
The ageing Patriarch then looked at Silver Eye. It was the look that caused the common miscreants and ruffians who were brought before him to spontaneously confess their sins and beg forgiveness but Silver Eye was not such a man. He stood defiantly before the Patriarch, attempting to shrug off the old blanket that some of the guards had draped over him.
"So the dread Silver Eye is here before me," said Sherlane in stern voice, tinged Lana thought with the slightest hint of pity. "You have done all of Karameikos a great service Lana but why have you brought him to me? By all accounts it is Luln that has suffered most at the teeth of his Pack though of course Threshold has not escaped their ravages.
"You must know I cannot cure his lycanthropy. It was grievous hubris for the Church to believe that it could reverse the hold of that affliction as easily as if it was a common fever. We have come to accept we were sadly mistaken. For those who have already taken the form of a beast beneath a full moon there is no certain cure."
Notwithstanding her ascent to power since she began adventuring in the Threshold area, the Patriarch's stern aspect still caused Lana to flinch.
"Your Lordship, I do not wish you to 'cure' Silver Eye. I believe you know he has suffered greatly at the hands of one who has wronged all of us here - Bargle the Infamous. The collar he wears," she gestured, "keeps him from directing his rage at his master. It may even be a conduit along which Bargle's will can be channeled. It has proved impervious to my spellcasting." She swallowed the lump which had risen in her throat. "My Lord, Silver Eye is my prisoner and I am not surrendering him to the Law. I humbly request that you remove his collar."
A cloud descended over the Patriarch's expression. "I think you had better explain exactly what you plan to do with your prisoner Lady Budanter."
"I plan to turn him against Bargle," she answered darkly. "Bargle created the weapon, let him defend himself against it. For the demise of Valtanivark who was master to both Bargle and I and was your friend also, I consider this not only gratifying but righteous also. I will ensure Silver Eye's return to Fort Doom so that he will not menace your townsfolk. He has already co-operated in coming here, his demeanour has been as peaceable as his nature will permit."
The Patriarch stared at her with an incredulous expression. "Lana," he said in the manner of one who was trying but not quite succeeding to not sound like a lecturing father, "even if I allow for the moment that there is so little humanity left in this creature that the King's Law does not apply to him, it does apply to Bargle. That bandit should be captured alive."
"Hah!" Silver Eye interjected with a laugh which could have passed for a hacking cough. "Weak old FOOL."
The Patriarch cast him a stern look. "As I was saying, Bargle the Infamous should face proper trial for his 'alleged' crimes and justice should be seen to be done. You seem to be suggesting that I assist you in setting loose a feral assassin upon the man."
He shook his head and continued. "This is sadly a violent world and as a younger man I killed others in battle but I will not condone murder. I hope I have misunderstood but I fear not. I sense something new in you Lana. If you continue down this course you will allow a stain to encroach upon your spirit."
He held up a hand to show he was not finished.
"Are you certain this collar allows Bargle to direct his will upon Silver Eye? If so then I would gladly remove it - Immortals willing - for Bargle should not have such a servant but have you considered that this collar may have some other purpose or may be all that is preventing Silver Eye from killing every man, woman or child in Fort Doom? You promise that he will not menace those under my immediate protection but what of other innocents? What promises can you make to them?"
Lana considered the Patriarch's words. He was a staunch lawabider, she knew, and she had hoped he might recall the memory of her deceased master with greater emotion. She would need to answer carefully, she knew, and keep her own emotions in check if she wished to avail of the Patriarch's aid. She replied as calmly as she was able:
"I support the King and his realm, you know that. But tell me, where is the efficacy of the King’s Law when Bargle inflicts widespread harm and avoids being made to answer for his crimes? Who else has sought to bring him to justice? To apprehend him…" she faltered, "… would be suicide and nigh impossible. Our kingdom lacks the means to combat rogue wizards, and Bargle knows it."
Somebody cleared their throat at Lana's side; it was Sascia. "On this I agree, my Lord. When was the last time a serious attempt was made to bring Bargle to trial? He acts like a monster and should be treated as such. From what Lana has told me you are not ignorant of his crimes - crimes that, by the Duke er... King's Law, are punishable by death!"
Encouraged by her friend's input, Lana continued. "I cannot agree that to send a foe against him is tantamount to murder. I submit that Bargle is no meek, vulnerable person. He has powerful defences, Silver Eye would have difficulty getting close to him let alone harming him. His magical repertoire is huge and includes resources pilfered from my master’s tower and from his corpse. The playing field is more than even, if anything it is weighted in Bargle’s favour.
"The Church of Karameikos venerates Tarastia," she pronounced the name reverently. “Her Order in Thyatis taught me that True Justice takes time, but finds a way. I say this is a way, a golden opportunity. I say let Silver Eye be the agent of retribution, let an eye be taken for an eye. If Silver Eye lacks the mental capacity which is needed to prove guilt, if there must be a wrongdoer then let it be me. Let the stain fall on my spirit, I promise I will atone more greatly than the sin merits. You know me, Baron. I do not make this request lightly. Yet I beg you - perform the rite, or tell me by what other means I can convince you to help.
"As for the collar's properties, I spent weeks observing Silver Eye in his home environment," she held up her scrying crystal, "and I saw him harm an innocent denizen of Fort Doom, acting on a whim. That tells me that the collar protects only Bargle and those close to him. Bargle never struck me as an altruistic type, why would he care about the common folk who are immaterial to his ambitions?"
Sascia interjected again. "The common folk are, if anything, subjected to Bargle's vile experiments while he resides in Fort Doom. The King would rather just believe the Black Eagle's ridiculous story that Bargle is some sort of indentured servant than face the truth that an uncontrollable mad man has been given the freedom to do as he will in western Karameikos."
The Patriarch had been listening quietly while weighing up the arguments before him. "As we do unto others," he murmured, "so will they do unto us. Such is the way men live. Very well Lana, you speak knowledgably about the teachings of Tarastia. I believe her will may be a work here."
He stepped up to Silver Eye and placed his hands upon the collar, reciting the words of a spell. Previously hidden magical glyphs glowed red on the leather for a moment and then faded. The old cleric easily undid the clasps and removed the collar.
What happened next was horrific and unexpected.
Silver Eye screamed and collapsed to the floor writhing in agony. The sound he was making was like nothing human. Tears were streaming down one side of his face. Down the other were tears of blood. It looked like the flesh was slowly melting off his skull.
The Baron backed away in shock and even Sascia looked discomforted.
Equally distraught, Lana attempted to make sense of what was happening. "My Lord," she cried, aghast, "might the collar's removal have triggered a curse?"
Baron Halaran shook his head but it was more a gesture of uncertainty than disagreement with her suggestion.
Everything happened at once.
The Patriarch stepped hesitantly forward again. Guards came rushing in. Silver Eye was transforming. His blanket fell to the floor and he tore apart the ropes binding him as if they were nothing. He got to his feet, clawing at his own face. Sascia made a grab for a rope still attached to one arm but Silver Eye seized her by the throat with one great hairy arm and hurled her across the room as if she were a child's doll rather than a warrior in armour.
The Baron's guards were closing in with spears. Silver Eye didn't appear to have noticed. He was staggering about roaring with pain.
Lana readied herself to cast the sole spell she had remaining, but realised there were too many people in a confined space. Sascia got back to her feet, appearing shaken but not seriously hurt. She saw the guardsmen and shouted in a commanding voice, "No. Get back. You can't hurt him, only annoy him!"
They hesitated, looking to Baron Halaran for guidance.
The Patriarch cast a spell but it didn't seem to have worked.
Silver Eye was not attacking however, only roaring, "Blood, kill, blood, KILL!", clutching his head and lurching in one direction then another.
Lana encouraged everyone to retreat from the room then cast her spell. The room was swathed in a cascade of multicoloured light. Silver Eye seemed unaffected however. He seemed to see Lana and stalked forward with intent. He appeared even bigger and more ferocious than before. Lana could barely bring herself to look at the horror that was the bubbling, pustuled left side of his face.
He roared inarticulately in her face, towering over her and raised a clawed hand.
"It's in your mind," she shrieked, standing her ground while fumbling about her person for a vial of distillate. "The pain is in your mind, you can fight it! You're free!"
She wondered in that moment whether her end was in sight, whether she would die at the hands of this beast whose freedom she had engineered. There would be irony to her demise... and she would be remembered as having acted foolishly. The distillate was in her hand and she was attempting to loosen its stopper with her thumb when the beast's good eye unexpectedly rolled up in his socket and he collapsed to the floor, seemingly unconscious. Lana exhaled deeply, realising she had been holding her breath for how long she did not know.
"Take him to the dungeons and secure him," Baron Halaran was saying in his sternest tones and his men rushed to obey.
Lana checked Sascia was unwounded, then summoned her remaining nerve and turned to face the Patriarch, bracing herself for an ill mood.
He shook his head. "I feared as much. Silver Eye is an uncontrollable monster. Do you still hope to enchant him somehow Lana?"
She considered this, frowning a little. "I could try, after rest. Such magic is not to my liking but if Silver Eye has become more feral than before, we may have no other option."
Sherlane slipped back into his grandfatherly demeanour. "Rest. Yes of course. You look tired. I expect capturing Silver Eye in the first place was not easy. You may of course stay here. I will have rooms prepared."
Lana gave the Patriarch her thanks, realising that she had known little rest in almost two days.
Lana managed a few hours' rest before dining with the Patriarch and discussing the tribulations of running a dominion. Things in Threshold, it transpired, had been quiet of late although a number of Darokinian refugees had settled in the town and the gnolls of the Foamfire Valley had been causing problems in the region of Verge.
Baron Halaran enthusiastically discussed Lana's plans for Glaston. As townsmistress of Luln, Sascia said she would be happy if she had enough funds to ensure the town was properly defended. The three diners all bonded on the subject of keeping local humanoid tribes in check. Baron Halaran said that was why he had always liked to make Threshold a town that welcomed and indeed actively encouraged young bands of adventurers to stay there.
Towards the end of the meal a faint but frightening howl echoed through Tarnskeep. Two servants clearing the table dropped the plates and visibly shook with fear. One started pushing chairs in front of the door.
Lana toyed with the ring on her finger and tried to force her rational mind to the fore, pushing unbidden images of wolves feasting on her entrails out of her mind. A moment passed, and the urge to panic uncontrollably was no more.
The Patriarch slowly got to his feet, laid a hand upon the servant attempting to barricade the door and calmed her with a few murmured words.
"Please remain here. I will attend to this," he said before exiting.
Sascia looked at her companion with a 'What should we do?' expression.
"Let's do as the Patriarch says," Lana answered, "but remain alert. If we hear further noises we will go see what is happening."
There was considerable commotion throughout the Keep as those who had resisted the effects of the Howl attempted to calm or restrain those who had not. Subsequent howls intensified the fear of those who had already been affected but were otherwise harmless and it did not appear that anyone was in immediate danger. Then the howling stopped abruptly. A few minutes later the Patriarch returned and explained that he had placed a Silence upon Silver Eye's cell.
"Even a werewolf's howl cannot shatter a holy peace."
Lana foresaw a peaceful night's sleep.
It was the following morning. The gaoler opened a six-inch barred square window, allowing Lana to peer inside to where Silver Eye, having slipped out of his manacles by reverting to human form, was curled up in a corner with his head in his hands, muttering to himself. The stench coming from the cell was strong. As the light from the gaoler's torch fell on him, Silver Eye leapt up and began cursing at Lana, demanding that she let him out.
She muttered the words to her enthralment spell, but it appeared to have no effect. By the time she made her second attempt Silver Eye had transformed to his bipedal wolf form and threw himself against the door. Lana was thankful for the bars keeping his slavering jaws from her face.
"Blood. Blood. Kill!"
She cast her spell a third time, trying to ignore the shuddering door.
"Want flesh! Kill Bargle! BLOOD! MEAT!"
"It's me," she called into the cell, putting her face against the bars. "Your friend. You're causing quite the commotion. I wish to return you home, to Bargle... will you come with me?"
Her words did not have a calming effect. If anything, the mention of the name 'Bargle' intensified his fury and he became completely unintelligible.
In a last-ditch attempt to be rid of the beast, she attempted a transportation spell. To her dismay, that too failed.
"Close the hatch," she instructed the jailor, entirely dejected. "We will try again tomorrow."
With the remainder of the day free to do as she wished, Lana visited the derelict shell of her master's tower and sat silently in her old room as well as in her master's study and the kitchen. She stopped by Drewen's cottage, finding it unoccupied and securely boarded up against would-be occupiers. Was this truly the same town as she knew from times gone by?
Nevertheless immersed in nostalgia, she caught up with various locals. All the old familiar faces were happy to see her and gave her various gifts of bread, fresh fish, vegetables, trinkets, bowls, blankets and the like.
Sascia commented that Threshold and Luln had roughly the same population but Threshold was a larger and better place to live in almost every way.
The Patriarch had to make a few visits to the cells to keep Silver Eye in silence but even he did not have enough spells to last all day and night.
It was a great relief when on the following morning Lana peered into the cell and upon casting her spell heard the words "Hurts. Burns. Pain. So bad. Make stop. Please."
Please... The word startled her and softened her heart. Her thoughts went to the collar; she could not help but regret removing it. She suspected its function, among other properties, had been to render Silver Eye's constant pain more bearable. She wondered whether any mundane being could endure the superhuman levels of agony to which he was now subjected. Her guess was that they could not. She felt guilty... and found herself wishing Karnus were present. Whereas she herself was powerless, he might have managed to help Silver Eye control the pain which was surely, to some degree, in his mind.
She gestured for the jailer to open the cell door and she slipped inside.
"I am sorry you are hurting," she said gently. She stooped by Silver Eye's side, he had reverted to human form and was curled on the floor where the rushes were less than clean. "I do not believe there is anything I can do to lessen the pain. The least I can do is get you to your home, if you able to travel."
Something lit in his eyes. "Home? Doom? Want to go! Want to kill! Want to kill Bargle! And Baron! Help me!"
Although tame with her, the murderous intent in his voice had not lessened. It gave Lana strength; given a day or two, that determination might prove to be Bargle's undoing.
"Yes," she soothed, "let's get you back to Fort Doom. Promise me you won't hurt anybody as we're leaving? It would make things difficult for me if you did."
Silver Eye was unconcerned, and rose uneasily to his feet. "Keep meat out of my way. Bargle. Kill Bargle first!"
Everyone in Tarnskeep appeared relieved to see Lana and Silver Eye depart. Sherlane and Sascia had come down to the cells and were hovering outside. Seeing Lana ready to go, the Baron instructed his guards to keep everyone out of sight while Lana led Silver Eye outside.
She stepped close to the Patriarch. "Thank you, my Lord. I fear we have been too great an imposition upon your hospitality."
The Patriarch gave his kindly, grandfatherly smile. "You are always welcome here, Lana."
"Is there nothing you can do for his pain? He is beside himself. A criminal and mindless beast he may be, but there may be a shred of noble spirit within him. And we should not forget, his pain was inflicted by Bargle."
The Patriarch shook his head though with a sadness which seemed genuine. "There are records of priests of Chardastes who could remove pain, but since the decline of that cult there are no known clerics within Karameikos who can perform such works."
Her thoughts strayed to her friend Piotr. "A pity."
Silver Eye interrupted their conversation by snarling loudly at Sascia. Lana interposed herself, relying on the enthralment magic to protect her.
"Listen here," Lana said sternly, realising she was speaking in the voice she had used to reprimand Whiskers on past occasions. "Sascia is coming with us, she wants to help and she's not," she gave an awkward pause, "meat so I won't have her harmed. You'll behave for me, won't you?"
Something in Silver Eye's good eye gave an odd glimmer. Lana felt tension in that moment, as if her spell risked being disrupted. She realised that she was asking Silver Eye to betray his base nature... which was to kill and devour Sascia. The spell's protection would only stretch so far and would bring disaster if it broke. He seemed willing to acquiesce, only just, for the time being. Lana had no wish to see whether he would continue to do so as the full moon continued its approach and his bloodlust steadily grew. The full moon was less than five days away.
The carpet travelled south-west, following the path to Verge before leaving it when it veered south to keep heading straight on over the mountains. They flew all day and camped that evening on a heavily wooded hillside. Sascia unfurled her bedroll at a distance from the other two and was the first to sleep.
As the stars were appearing overhead, Silver Eye sniffed the air. "You want to go hunting?"
That's sweet, Lana mused. He wants to me to hunt alongside him. She wondered whether to let him run free, counting on her spell to return him to her side. She imagined herself flying alongside him, singling out prey and felling it with her magic. That would be a unique experience, she thought. But she had to keep watch while Sascia slept. Another thought nagged at her - they were close to the Radlebb Woods.
Before she could reply he growled impatiently. "I smell food. Let's go kill it."
"Can you tell what food it is?"
"Yes. I smell elves."
"Oh." She cringed. "I happen to know some elves in this area... if they find out I'm travelling with you they could cause difficulty. I know you want to hunt but... could we leave them alone? Why don't you stay here with me instead, me, your friend?" She smiled as warmly as she could manage, realising she was once again asking him to act contrary to his nature.
Again she sensed a strain between them; whether or not it was her imagination she was unable to tell. He stared at her for a long while, weighing up whether to go tearing off into the night. Ultimately he did not, but assumed full wolf form and prowled the camp restlessly, marking trees and letting out the occasional howl of frustration and pain. Lana suspected that the urge to kill anything that moved had required great effort to subjugate. She silently prayed that her sway over Silver Eye would hold for at least another day.
Back on the carpet the next day, Silver Eye had reverted to human form and muttered to himself in what seemed like a mantra: "I'll tear him, I'll rip him, I'll feast on his bones. Dead, dead, you're dead Bargle. I'm coming for you."
The carpet continued southwest over the Radlebb Woods, flying against a strong wind, which was unpleasant enough but then it started to rain. At least it was not snow, Lana thought, or hail or sleet. The weather was definitely getting milder after the long winter.
Before too long the ruined walls and crumbling chimney of Korizegy Keep were spied to the south. Lana smiled to herself - after everything else that had happened, she had ended up with Silver Eye in the shadow of the keep. From that point she knew it was not far to Luln and kept going straight on.
When Luln finally came into view, Sascia asked her to set the carpet down so that she could have a private word. When Lana did so she made clear that she didn't want Silver Eye any closer to Luln, enthralled or otherwise. Lana nodded, there was nothing to be gained by doing so. Lana deposited Sascia on the main trail, promising to return that evening. She and Silver Eye departed, watching Sascia's armoured form grow tiny behind them before disappearing from view.
Unwilling to run into patrols on the way to Fort Doom Lana flew parallel to the road, a mile to its north. Fittingly, the weather seemed to get more unpleasant as the unlikely pair entered the Black Eagle Barony. Lana spotted troops on the road but was too far away to know whether they had seen her. At such a distance, it would have been difficult to identify what they were seeing in any case. The unfortunate subjects of the Black Eagle were toiling in the fields - supposedly free men of Karameikos but in actuality serfs under the Baron's oppressive rule.
Silver Eye sat beside her, muttering incoherently. Was he masking his pain, she wondered, by focussing his rage at Bargle? Whilst she continued to dislike the artificiality of the Charm spell, she could not deny its efficacy. How else could she have travelled alongside the realm's most powerful and insane lycanthrope? She wondered whether any other person had experienced him in a similar state. The more she thought about it, the more her curiosity increased. Sascia had been unable to answer her specific questions about the man's origins... little was known about him before he became the beast.
"I wonder," Lana said softly, knowing their time together would soon draw to a close. "Would you tell me something about yourself?"
His good eye stared at her. "Whaddya want to know?"
"Your name would be something." She stated the request meekly. "Before you were given another, I mean."
His hulking shoulders hunched. "Can't 'member much 'fore tha burnin'. Name don't matter no more..."
His wits had been addled, she reminded herself. Bargle had subjected him to unthinkable cruelty, no wonder it had cost him his memories. So sad.
"... although I had a boy I think."
The single thought, spoken aloud, took her aback more than she would have expected and filled her with sadness. A child, somewhere... possibly living. He was staring into the distance, and the vague recollection seemed to have distracted from his pain. She decided she would not pry for additional information.
Through the solid rain she made out the walls of the town in the distance and looming on the crag above it the fortress. A heaviness descended upon her like a hand grasping her beating heart as she realised this was the point where she would set Silver Eye loose... dangerous as he was and as much as her Charm spell might break, part of her would be sorry to see him go. The carpet slowed before halting altogether.
She faced the companion who had been her captive.
"I said I would get you back to Fort Doom and I have." Something lit in his eyes; she laid a hand upon his wrist to restrain him. "Before you go rushing off... perhaps you will think differently of me in the future, but I want you to know I am truly grateful for what you are doing. And I am sorry that removing your collar caused you pain."
She leaned close and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"Now go get that bastard Bargle."
Silver Eye grinned at her. It was one of the most frightening things she had ever seen and that was saying something given her career. He dropped to all fours and in a matter of seconds had become a wolf with slaver running from his jaws and blood and pus running from his eye.
Willing him to succeed, and to survive against such a powerful foe as Bargle, Lana mouthed the words to a spell and pointed at Silver Eye as he departed. His movements became a blur as he began to run faster than Lana's carpet could fly.
She watched him depart amid a mixture of emotions - among them admiration, pity, vengeance, and concern for innocents who might get in his way. As the rain continued to pour she withdrew to a sheltered spot and settled under a tree to watch events unfold.
In the depths of her crystal she saw Silver Eye tear through Fort Doom as people scrambled to get out of his way - barrows were knocked over, chickens flapped and horses reared amid a multitude of commotion. Before long he was at the great skull-like gatehouse of the fortress. Lana mentally rolled her eyes wondering whether the Baron realised he had the aesthetic sensibility of some villain in a child's story. She glimpsed black uniforms and some spears, a blur of movement, a flash of teeth and a splash of blood. Silver Eye was now standing on two legs, a spear gripped in one hairy hand and gore dripping from his fangs. He resumed his charge into the fortress, thrusting the spear this way and that with great fury until it was also dripping with blood.
The vision faded. She renewed it at once, not wishing to miss a moment.
Silver Eye appeared surrounded but was laying about creating bloody carnage - she was reminded of Lord Eruul Zaar's fight (if it could be called that) with the agents of Hel. What Silver Eye lacked in terms of Zaar's supreme skill he largely made up for with brutal savagery. He had lost his spear but gained a sword and was hewing about him with great abandon. There were arrows and bolts lodged in his hide but he seemed to be paying them no mind. Then he suddenly lurched to the side and Lana saw an arrow lodge in his shoulder that appeared to be silver tipped. There was another flash of silver and a gash opened up in his side. Someone close by seemed to have a silver dagger. A swing of the sword and a head rolled. There was something large in front of him - even larger and hairier than he was - a Bugbear possibly. A brutal battle began. Silver Eye was disarmed but wrestled with his opponent and everything became a blur of hair, mud and blood. More black uniforms closed in, obscuring the werewolf and she saw another glimpse of silver. Then Silver Eye lurched to his feet with a polearm in hand and threw back his head. In the distance she heard a howl. In the Crystal Ball she saw black-clad shapes fleeing before the blood-crazed wolfman. Silver Eye did not pause but began to run across the yard. He did not get far before something else blocked his path.
A slender man seemed to be trying to talk to him but Silver Eye was clearly not interested. He dropped and assumed full wolf form before leaping the man. The man struggled and began to transform himself, tearing out of his clothes but his transformation did not seem as quick and easy as the way Silver Eye slipped from one form to another. Valuable seconds passed by during which Silver Eye bit and buffetted the other werewolf. Eventually Silver Eye's opponent was in animal form but he was already bleeding from several wounds. Was there something distinctive about him - Lana could not see clearly however he appeared familiar... quite possibly the lone wolf from the riverside encounter. In any case he tried to fight back and he and Silver Eye rolled around for a while but there was clearly only going to be one winner of this fight. Eventually the other wolf rolled over in submission. For a moment Lana thought Silver Eye was going to kill him anyway but instead he threw back his head and howled again and his Pack followed him (struggling to keep up) as he ran on towards a tower. He threw himself at the door but just before impact the vision faded.
Lana thought the door looked familiar - she recalled from her brief time in Fort Doom that Bargle had a tower within the confines of the Baron's fortress. She renewed the vision as quickly as possible, eager to watch the scenario progress.
The mists parted once more and she saw Silver Eye repeatedly throwing himself against the door to no avail. Rearing up on two legs and once again becoming a wolfman he stalked back across the courtyard and grabbed an axe off a fallen guardsman. The Pack served to keep the remaining Black Eagle troops out of his way. Arrows were raining down on the wolves and many of the normal animals amongst the Pack were badly wounded but Silver Eye was unconcerned. Then there was a great flare and fire filled Lana's vision. When the smoke cleared Silver Eye was still standing but nothing else around him - man or beast - was. Large patches of the wolfman's fur had been burned away and the axe in his hand had been reduced to useless slag. He raised his head looking up at something and then something very peculiar happened as Lana's vision twisted and distorted. It looked as if the world was turning inside out and then there was just a white nothingness surrounding a figure that still appeared to be Silver Eye although distorted and difficult to make out. The figure certainly seemed to move like Silver Eye but it appeared something was preventing him from moving in certain directions although all around him was nothing...
Eventually the vision faded altogether.
Disconcerted, Lana stowed the crystal ball while reflecting on how Silver Eye never got close to Bargle let alone scratched him. Let alone anything more. She kicked herself, thinking she should have known the door to his tower would be magically reinforced... although to have been in the courtyard to try and open it would have been beyond perilous.
There seemed little more she could do. With a wistful sigh she stowed her belongings, bid her carpet rise and carry her back to Luln.
"So neither Bargle nor the Baron has been ripped to shreds." Sascia sounded less than surprised. "It was too much to hope for. At least there have been heavy casualties amongst their troops."
Lana nodded. "The Pack is even more decimated, Bargle's own Fireball saw to that. They also have the problem of trying to re-exert control over Silver Eye. I hope no harm comes to him... wherever he is." Her understanding of the magic she had observed through the Crystal Ball was incomplete... yet it terrified her.
"Could Bargle not just enchant him the way you did?"
"Yes, though it might take him several attempts as it did me. And the effect will be temporary, whereas the collar rendered it permanent. I imagine Bargle may try to retrieve the collar." She thought of it festering at the bottom of her enchanted bag. "It's what I would do."
"What will you do now?"
"I have other appointments to keep," Lana said, realising with genuine sadness that the adventure she and Sascia had shared was concluded. "An attendance at the King's Court, for one."
"I meant right now," Sascia said gruffly. "You are welcome to stay here tonight, if you wish."
Lana accepted the offer and bedded down in Sascia's small but comfortably appointed second bedroom.
The hour was close to midnight when she heard the screams.
She leapt up, dressed and looked outside. By the light of the moon a severed wolf's head could be seen bobbing up and down as it floated at a brisk pace along the road towards Sascia's home.
Lana's heart sank and her throat constricted. Her first thought was that the head belonged to Silver Eye. After all, Bargle's cruel and petty nature would not have prevented him from committing such a wanton act. Doubt nagged her however, and as the cloud of sleep lifted from her mind she realised that the head of any werewolf would have reverted to human form were it to have been severed from the rest of his body.
She murmured a spell and passed a hand in front of her eyes. Her suspicion was confirmed that an aerial being carried the head. It approached Sascia's door, placed the head on the ground, banged loudly and departed with a whoosh back to its home plane.
Joining Sascia, whose sword was in her hand, she opened the door and saw that the head appeared to be that of a normal (if badly burned) wolf. In its jaws was a folded piece of parchment.
Sascia was about to unfold the parchment when she stopped. "This could be a curse of some sort. Is there any way for you to determine if this has any magic about it?"
Lana frowned. "I rather think Bargle wants us to read his note. A curse in this form would be... less than stylish." She cast a detection spell all the same; the note did not exude a magical aura, although she noticed that Sascia's sword and a ring she wore both glowed.
Written on the parchment was a message:
Dear SasciaShe read the note several times. The thought of Bargle visiting her village, especially while she was not there, filled her with dread. For a moment she regretted the entire episode, taunting Silver Eye, setting him against Bargle, the hideous consequences which would inevitably follow... where and against whom Bargle might choose to strike. How could he hurt her the most, she wondered, beyond what he had already done? What would she do in his position? Again she thought back to the horribly powerful magic to which Silver Eye had been subjected, and the vast magical repertoire which Bargle might deploy against those whom she held dear...
I know you were involved in today's little disturbance. Thank you for enlivening what might otherwise have been a dreary afternoon. You know I like no sound better than the agonized screams of the dying.
Did you want my attention little girl? You have it now I assure you.
As for your companion, the report I received was somewhat confusing but I know of only two individuals in Karameikos who own a flying carpet and one of them is not foolish enough to challenge me in this manner. Perhaps I will pay a visit to Threshold however, just to make sure. Alternatively, I might come to talk with you first or, then again, I might seek out Glaston. I have heard that its population is expanding rapidly. I might be able to advise Lady Budanter on how to handle an excess of peasants. Other nobles have found my advice on this subject to be most sagacious.
I have been buried in my books for too long. There are so many places I now find myself wishing to go but fortunately frequent and rapid transport is not a difficulty for me.
Thank you once again for reminding me of the many possible forms of pain just waiting to be explored.
"I will send Cardia a warning," she said, sounding faraway and indeed in that moment her thoughts were far from anchored in the present.
Sascia was analysing her expression and seemed to read her thoughts. "Do not regret what we have done."
"I don't," she said, though she imagined she sounded less than convincing. "Perhaps we acted too soon, we could have taken better precautions... but the longer that monster remains at large, the more powerful he becomes. The magic he deployed against Silver Eye..." a wobble crept into her voice, "was frighteningly potent." She forced herself to breathe, to set aside the fear which the rational aspect of her mind knew Bargle wished to instil in her via his note. "I will bring an end to his wickedness. I do not know how and it unsettles me more than I can say... but I will not rest until justice has been served."
Sascia's expression was one of grim resolve. "I knew the risks. This does not surprise me and we should certainly be prepared for Bargle to move against us but I also know how he and the Baron think. The Black Eagle has long held back from a full attack on Luln and I do not think he would suddenly want to risk it now. If however he does launch such an attack then surely the King would have to take action at long last."
Lana nodded. "If it should come to that, know that you have my support. You need only send word to Glaston and I will come."
Sascia smiled genuinely. "Bargle or no, I shall be glad for our paths to cross again."
Despite the woman's serious nature... or perhaps because of it... Lana knew she had made a genuine ally.
Read the next instalment - A Friendly Chat
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