Night time, clouds scuttle across the moons. The third, dark moon always viewed as a portent of, if not evil than at least doom, by suspicious folk, felt as if it was low overhead. Swamp gives way to higher ground; gnarled and twisted trees grow from the ruins of ancient Orgoth constructions. But no one was here for the archaeology.
Rain glistened on everything. Water dripped from the end of Torendra’s nose as she stealthily made her way through the wizened trees, careful to avoid stubbing her toes on the ancient, moss covered stonework which littered the area.
She knew from her journey south that this was the sort of place where Gatormen made their nests. She also knew that her Khadorian pistol could drop a Gatorman at a dozen paces. But she was silently cursing the rain and praying that her precious and limited supplies of powder stayed dry. If it even caught a hint of damp, the chances of it firing properly evaporated. And she didn’t have a sword anymore either.
Torendra was actually unaware that she was stalking an Eldrich and his Sythyss. Ignorant of their nature, believes she’s just after Forgileill, the murdering slut. About three weeks ago Forgileill had seduced and set up Torendra’s lover to be murdered. Moreover months of planning for a really big heist had gone out of the window as the damned elves had cleaned out the joint and left a trail of bodies knee deep around Merywyn. Resistance to Lleal’s Khadorian oppressors had been put back years. With nothing else left, Torendra’s only purpose was revenge.
Life was never easy for an Edium girl. Adolescent thief, teen bride and runaway. The Khadorians had taken the first lover that Immorian had allowed her. Forgileill had stolen and then effectively murdered the second. Torendra estimated that she’d killed over sixty Khadorians in the past year. With every happiness she’d known gone, now she was after the Princess, one more could hardly add to the amount of blood on her hands.
As quietly as she could, she continued to creep through the trees and ruins. As she did so she notices a figure, more intact than the other statuary, it seems to be looking at her. As she gets closer, her suspicions are further aroused when it appears to be a statue of Thranduil ‘You don’t know what you’re dealing with.’ His familiar voice was little more than a whisper. At any other time, under any other circumstances she would have been overjoyed to hear his voice. But after all that had happened, in this place? It was hardly a coincidence. ‘She kilt Keri and now she’s gonna die!’
Torendra indicated, with the pistol levelled at his head, that he was to walk in front of her. ‘Every elf I’ve seen since I got here has murdered someone I cared for. And these murdering elves weren’t all strangers, so don’t think that I wouldn’t blow your brains all over the swamp as well. When I catch that murdering slut she’s going to wish she’d never been born.’
Noiselessly he turned and moved off into the night. ‘I really do think you might be too late.’ Whispered Thranduil to himself. He could feel them. They were here.
They were ambushed then, by a Sythyss. Not needing to breathe it lurked submerged in an ancient stone trough, rising up as they passed, albeit unseen by them, brandishing a long knife and a sword in its hands. As it stood, it passed in front of the moons and threw a shadow across the former companions. Spinning around, Torendra shoots at the centre of the figure casting the moonshadow. There is an arc of stagnant water as the impact of the shot propelled the creature who had once been an Iosian swordsman far behind the trough he’d hidden in. She goes to reload and without making any noise at all, it gets up again. Desperately Torendra is unbuttoning her topcoat and jacket to reach the powder charges kept warm and dry within. More swiftly, Thranduil steps past her and decapitates it. Bifurcated, it dies and explodes into dust. Torendra is gobsmacked and stands, open mouthed for a few heartbeats as Thranduil pauses as if listening for the next attack before sheathing his taiken with a slight flourish.
Bending at the knee, he picks up the thing’s weapons and examines them. He was familiar with Rysso-lyr, the Iosian art of two-sword fighting. These weapons were doubtless once highly prized heirlooms. But as the Eldrich perverted the elf, so the corruption spread to that elf’s possessions. Thranduil could feel the raging evil in the blades. Oh! For shame that once great Ios continued to loose its very heart in this manner.
Tossing the immaculate but now tainted Iosian blades into the trough, Thranduil outlines the threat posed by the Eldrich. How it twisted and perverted otherwise innocent elves to it’s service and how it would, being immortal, continue to prey on the living of all races until the end of time itself unless it was stopped. He left out the theology, the really bad news - Torendra looked pretty strung out already. She had a wild look in her eyes and the rain plastered her dirty blonde hair over her tattooed skin. Despite the apparent coolness of the weather, constant droplets of rain on her skin and soaking blouse clinging to her heaving chest made it look as if she were back in Teddin. Thranduil nodded his head towards her open jacket, “Your powder will get wet.” She finished reloading and fastened her attire close about her.
The rain continues as they come to an altar where the Eldrich’s latest sacrifice is about to take place. The victim lies bound on a stone altar. About the altar they can make out standing stones and gnarled and twisted trees. Thirteen torches cast a flickering light and lend an ambience of subtle menace, as if here, perhaps no light at all might be better than things half revealed. There is a small, rain lashed, black haired female figure in white rags stood with head bowed at the foot of the steps. The figure is facing away from them. The ground is green with grasses and mosses but appears black in the night as there is standing water almost everywhere. Black clouds pour rain down upon the land as Thranduil and Torendra creep around the edge of the site towards a place where they will have cover from view and still be able to see themselves.
Thranduil indicates to Torendra that it is one of the Sythyss. He can feel that there is at least one more nearby and the Eldrich is also here, the beneficiary of the sacrifice. Moving to some unheard cue, the Sythyss slowly begins to mount the cracked stone stairs up to the ancient alter. By now Thranduil and Torendra have moved around to where they can see a little more clearly. Thranduil can sense the Eldrich itself, waiting calmly in the darkness for the murder to take place.
The small black haired figure in white rags stood unmoving for a very long time. Just as Torendra thought that she couldn’t stand the waiting any more and was about to move, the figure raised her bowed head and stepped up to the sacrifice. It was her. Torendra nearly gagged, although she knew not whether it was fear, triumph or excitement. Thranduil was desperately trying to communicate with Torendra but she couldn’t hear him and had no interest in what he might have to say. He was an elf. Perhaps he should be next on her list. She continued to move, putting distance between herself and Thranduil.
Forgileill, eyes rolled up showing only the whites, stands above the altar, knife in both hands. Slowly she raises the blade up above her head. Thranduil shakes his head vehemently at Torendra, who had crept beyond his reach. It’s the Eldrich they need to watch for, the Eldrich who is the threat to their continued existence. Ignoring Thranduil’s wishes, Torendra levels her pistol at Forgileill and aims at the centre of her chest. Thunder splits the night.
Suddenly, Kamilata is stood by the altar in front of them, fist raised. He lowers his arm and drops Torendra’s smoking bullet to the ground. Time stands still for a split second. Where did he come from? He sweeps around with the butt of a huge rough hafted flint tipped spear and knocks Forgileill flying. The swipe is so strong she lands outside of the circle of torchlight.
Then the Eldrich attacks Thranduil and Torendra from out of the night. They are struck from behind with great force and are knocked forward into the circle of wan torchlight, Torendra through a briar patch and Thranduil glancing off one of the standing stones. Both get the feeling that something is trying to grasp their life energy as they fall. Indescribable pain causes both of them to writhe uncontrollably as their very souls are slowly peeled away from their bodies. And then, more suddenly that it began, it stops.
The Eldrich might have been surprised to find the tip of Tûd’s taiken poking out from his breastbone. The gaunt, skeletal face with its pointed canines looked down at the foreign object, its red eyes pulsating. Tûd is slightly more surprised when it doesn’t fall down dead, but turns around and tries to run him through with his broadsword. Saved by his yicduroh, Tûd falls back, stunned.
The undead elf-lord spins, his broadsword pointing at the charging Kamilata. The spearman throws himself flat as inky, light bending blackness shoots along the blade and lances towards him. This desperate act saves him from death but leaves him writhing in agony as he rolls his charred right flank in the mud, trying to cool the burning and control his pain.
Torendra is hefted into the air as the Eldrich catches her across the ribs with his foot. Teeth clenched, she keeps a tight grip on her huge pistol even as she lands on the altar next to the naked girl and slowly rolls off, landing in the mud with a low groan. In the same motion as the kick at Torendra the Eldrich’s sword swung back-hand and would have smashed Thranduil’s head to a pulp but for his Veffoh. The neck guard was ruined and Thranduil struggled to remove it as the bowl of the helmet was now so dented that it was pressing hard on his skull. With ears ringing and vision swimming he managed to remove it.
The Eldrich now turns once more to Tûd, whose hastily erected magical shield splinters and buckles as the dead elf’s curse sends scintillating showers of black sparks across it’s surface. Without looking, its empty hand swings back and the open hand grasps Thranduil’s face. Effortlessly the Eldrich swings its arm forwards, until it is holding the Falliarochben up in the air, legs kicking. Where the Eldrich’s hand touches his skin, Thranduil’s flesh begins to smoke.
Kamilata, still scarcely breathing, throws his spear. It hits the Eldrich’s sword hand, the black broadsword is lost along with two fingers. Distracted, it drops Thranduil, who grasps the hilts of Tûd’s taiken as he falls, supporting his weight on the sword that still passes all the way through the Eldrich. Hissing with pain and frustration, it melts into the night like some kind of vaporous spirit, leaving Thranduil on his knees, holding Tûd’s taiken.
Shakily, Tûd gets up. For a moment the only sound is Torendra, still on the ground, re-loading her massive pistol. Another Sythyss appears and Thranduil, who is more concerned with the buboes and pustules on his face almost disdainfully evades its attacks as his satisfies himself that his blistered countenance is not about to peel off of his skull. The thing that had once been a Nyss hunter was becoming increasingly frustrated by Thranduil’s apparent refusal to engage him. Noiselessly it roared at him. Feigning boredom, Thranduil casually pins it to the scenery with Tûd’s taiken and leaves it there, still spitting fury and actively brandishing it’s claymore at him, but stuck fast by the shoulder.
There is stillness for a moment in the colourless flat grey light. Kamilata sucks in a breath. Tûd takes a hesitant step forward. They follow Thranduil’s gaze to a patch of inky blackness. He doesn’t move his gaze as he gets a toe under Kamilata’s spear and flicks it back to the kneeling man’s hands. Forgileill slowly emerges from the night to be seen in the sickly glow of the torches. She looks at them all with the sort of hunger they’d only previously seen in the eyes of the Choosers under the ruined Ziggurats of the Teddin Plateau.
The Eldrich appears again behind Forgileill. He looks different now, wearing the handsome shape of Pelyth Rhysslyr as an actor wears a costume. His long hair flowed and he appeared most hale next to the wan figure of Forgieill. She has a vague and unfocussed look as he runs his hands over her body. He glares at each of them in turn as his hands explore her through holes in her rags. She makes no move to resist his intimate caress and just looks at her former colleagues as if daring them to take action.
In that one glance the creature that was once Pelyth Rhsslyr told Thranduil, Tûd and Kamilata that he knew that he'd taken something precious to them. He was enjoying their discomfort now as much as he’d enjoyed Forgileill’s silent suffering. And that now, she was his creature, his slave, his Sythyss. Torendra was still sat on the floor, her back to the drama, raindrops landing large about her as she struggled in the dark to load a dry charge, all the while muttering curses through gritted teeth as pain wracked every breath she took.
Tûd is standing still, staring at the Eldrich and mumbling, arcane formulae tumbling over themselves as his lips move. Suddenly Torendra is up and waving her cannon about again, staggering about like a drunkard. Thranduil’s own taiken made a slow metallic rasp as he drew it without taking his concentration off of the Eldrich. The Eldrich sneered at them all “Your puny weapons cannot kill me”. Thranduil glanced at Kamilata’s spear. It was, quite blatantly, both magical and entirely made of natural materials. The Eldrich was either bluffing or daft.
Torendra sneered back, mimicking the evil thing “Maybe not, but I’ll bet this stings.” She pulls trigger and there is a deafening retort and more white smoke than usual as the force of the round blows the top of his head off. Howling and with the top quarter of his head shattered, the Eldrich pushes Forgileill towards them, screaming at her to kill them.
Grinning now, Forgileill flicks the sacrificial dagger at Kamilata, who is saved only by haft of his spear. As it is, the point of the dagger has gone all the way through and is pricking at his throat. Then, covering the distance in a blur, Forgileill slams into Torendra and knocks her flying. Dropping his sword, Thranduil clothes lines Forgileill and twists her as she falls, placing her in a full nelson. She glares balefully and writhes around, trying to either break free or to bite him. Kamilata transfixes the Eldrich with his (natural and magical) spear. Sweating now with effort and concentration, Tûd exults, eyes ablaze, points at the Eldrich and unleashes fire from his fingertips. It catches.
Kamilata uses the available leverage to fling the burning undead into a corner. Weight and stiction would normally result in the loss of the weapon, however, the undead body is dry and Kamilata’s trailing hand came up hard against the dagger still transfixing the butt end of the shaft. The creature leaves the end of the spear and flies into a stone wall and then falls heavily to the floor, still smouldering. With an eerie deliberateness, the burning Eldrich begins to rise once more. Torendra, grimacing through the pain of cracked ribs, pulls out the duelling pistols and shoots it twice.
The rounds do not lodge as they would in a fresher body but pass straight through, with puffs of dust, clouds of embers and splinters of bone flying away. That’s four damned holes I’ve shot clean through the bastard, thought Torendra. Tûd meanwhile has fished about in his bag and found oil and blasting powder. Throwing caution to the wind, he throws the separate concoctions on to the still burning Eldrich.
There is big explosion. All of them feel the heat. There is a flash as one of Torendra’s precious charges burns off before she can close the breach of the pistol. The blasted remains do not move, the sticky hot burning mixture continues to consume the remains. Tûd pats out the smouldering embers that cover his attire.
Thranduil is still sat on the struggling Forgileill. He and Kamilata glance at the previous transfixed Sythyss. It is still writhing on Thranduil’s sword. They share a glance and a slight nod. Thranduil springs up and leaps towards the remains of Pelyth Rhsslyr. Kamilata tackles Forgileill as she uncoils like a spring. He is surprised at how strong she seems to have become and nearly looses his grip as she is slippery with mud.
They grapple and Forgileill twists and turns, flipping Kamilata into the air over her hip. Heedless of the fire, Thranduil presses Aelin Rhsslyr’s ring into the forehead of the remains of the Eldrich’s, her husband’s, skull. It crumbles to dust. Simultaneously the Sythyss who was transfixed by Thranduil’s sword thrust also exploded to dust.
Forgileill, who was about to try to twist Kamilata’s head off, sags and collapses. He catches her. As he lowers her to the ground her eyes seem to clear and he could see recognition in her eyes. A smile came to the corner of her mouth as she sank down to cold wet earth.
The rain stopped.
Grasping, wheezing and grimacing, Torendra struggles to her feet. Her face is blackened and her eyebrows singed by the earlier flash off, she would have presented a comic figure had it not been for the look of determination on her face and the loaded pistol in her hand.
Thranduil placed himself in between her and the recumbent Forgileill. For the second time in half an hour, he was staring down the barrel of one of Torendra’s handguns. Not daring to glance down to his taiken, fixing her with his gaze, he shook his head. There was a pause. She bit her lip. Tears welled up within her.
Tûd, untying the sacrifice victim, shouted at Torendra. ‘It wasn’t her! She was being compelled! You saw. You saw Torendra, what ever you think she did, it wasn’t her!’ The pistol wavered slightly as the first tear broke free and made its slow way down to quivering lip. It had been a hard few months. Tûd came over and rested a careful hand on Torendra’s arm. Slowly, he took her into his embrace. Arms now limp, she turned her head into his shoulder and sobbed.
Kneeling over her, Kamilata was relieved to see that Forgileill appeared to be swiftly recovering. Lying in the mud she could see Thranduil watching her in the torchlight. Thranduil was regarding her with a cold stare. His gaze hooded, she couldn’t read him at all. She had not seen anyone she knew since they left Kelkess’ house, and having only hazy recollections of Duke Ebonheart’s ball wasn’t helping. It must have been longer ago than she thought. But hard stares or not, she was relieved to see them all, even if Torendra did seem a little upset (at her? Surely not).
Pelyth Rhsslyr, in his paranoid megalomania, became in his unlife the very spiteful and vindictive thing that he’d avoided all his mortal life. When his wife’s ring pressed into his burning skull, he knew he was bound for urcean. But there was still one there into whom he could pour the last vestige of his once considerable power. And his quite tangible hatred off all that still lived (and might thus, know love).
Unbeknownst to them all, the sacrifice had already been made, Islene d’Merrasi and her unborn child had been dead since sunset. Tûd thought he received a glimpse of recognition when he untied the girl. Logically, her flesh would have seemed cold, being tied naked to a rock in the pouring rain. He’d experienced nothing untoward untying the Rynnish noblewoman; that she seemed to be alive was enough. Then distracted, he’d moved to comfort Torendra. It seemed to be the priority.
With all eyes elsewhere, Pelyth’s parting gift to world slid off the stone it had lain on. The empty cadaver of a warm and loving young woman, just beginning to show outwardly that she carried her first child, was now host to something wholly vile. With eyes now glowing red, the risen grew long claws from it’s fingers. It’s teeth changed to fangs.
Stepping forward, two separate forehand swipes knocked the unsuspecting Thranduil and Kamilata flying, tearing armour, cloth, skin and flesh. Inconveniently for our heroes, they were deep, bleeding wounds. Clutching his side, Thranduil could feel hot blood seeping inside his yicduroh even as his face was pressed into cold moss. Kamilata had struck his head on the ancient stone work as he fell.
Tûd spun away from Torendra, putting enough distance between them to ensure that at least one of them would be flanking this new assailant. His hand grasped uselessly at his side for his taiken. Glancing past Torendra, he could just see it in the flickering torchlight, still thrust a good three or four finger depths into the scenery. Regardless of how fast it was stuck, it might as well have been a mile away.
Perhaps attracted by the movement, the risen creature snarled and hissed at Tûd as he side stepped away, always keeping a good distance between himself and it. Her tears clearing fast in the presence of danger, Torendra simply raised her hand and pulled the trigger. She could hole a silver piece at twice the distance with either of the duelling pistols. The thing was knocked off its feet and Tûd and the rest of the ground in an arc thereabouts were showered in a light layer of ribs and alveoli. This wasn’t the dry clean wound like the Eldrich had taken. He’d been slowly desiccating for two years. Poor Islene had only been dead a matter of hours. Blood and other fluids had pooled within her recumbent body. Especially her lungs.
Torendra kept her eyes on the thing as her hands began the reloading process at lightening speed. Tûd dashed for his sword, using his momentum to help wrench it free, saying a silent prayer of thanks to the smiths of Taurost that it came away whole.
But it was up again and closing with Torendra, who had so far managed only to fit a round and was still searching for a dry charge. As it’s arm came down Torendra was preparing for the worst. But the blow didn’t land. Forgileill was there and had it’s arm in hers. Twisting and spinning, Forgileill shoved the thing away with the sickening cracking popping sound of breaking bone and dislocated joints.
Again the thing turned and came for Torendra, this time with its remaining one good arm. Some previously unseen claw-like weapon flashed and this time the Risen lost its last functioning clawed hand to Forgileill. Forgileill’s claw of metal retracted and she stood there, wordlessly regarding the Risen, with its ruined torso, broken arm and missing hand.
Its head turned, incredulously, to regard Forgileill with hatred and an utter lack of understanding. Didn’t they both love Pelyth? Hadn’t he promised them eternal life in his harem? Curiously, Forgileill had some kind of sense that these were its thoughts, on some primeval, unconscious level. But Forgileill Gwathlo, also on an equally deep level, knew that all that Pelyth Rhsslyr pedalled were lies and suffering without even the release of death. She stared back, equally uncomprehending.
The thing’s head exploded, showering Forgileill in skull fragments and grey matter. The now finally lifeless remains slowly toppled into the mud. Torendra stood, smoking pistol in hand, watching Forgileill for what seemed like an age. The mud splattered half-dressed elf returned her stare. Slowly raising her hands to wipe Islene’s brain splatters and skull fragments from her face, she noticed that her hair was unbraided. Calmly she walked over and sat on the altar and began to re-braid her hair. Torendra put her sidearms back in their holsters and turned and walked back to her horse.
Clutching his sucking wound as he rose, Thranduil had to prop himself up with his taiken. Tud picked up the dazed Kamilata. The three of them watched Torendra sulk off into the darkness. Without changing their facing, the three faces swivelled to Forgileill, where she sat on the altar, fastening her hair with a strip of white cloth from her pitiful rags. Wiggling slightly, she reached up and picked another tiny fragment of Isene’s skull from her ear. She glanced up as she flicked it away, noticing that the three of them were staring at her. “What?” she demanded of them exasperatedly. She huffed and slid off the sacrificial slab and marched off past them after Torendra.
Wordlessly, the three turned and followed their female companions back towards civilisation.