Far Off Unhappy Webnovel


Chapter 17: Emain

By Renko Doremi Rodenburg

In traveling back down to the south of the Lands Lost, Reinhild learned a great many new things about herself. There was another her now, perpetually with her. The Red Fox. On her way down south, she spent as much time as possible understanding her new condition. She was two people now, but they were one. They were both Reinhild. Two minds, one soul. And she found that she could shift which half of her dual mind was dominant- and in doing so, learned to trade her skin for fur and back again.

Animal. Beast. She was The Red Fox now, scurrying from shrub to shrub. There were so many smells that her limited human body, not even with her barbarian upbringing, could ever distinguish. Now she could see, smell, and hear so much that was once hidden from her. For a large part of her journey back down to the Lands Lost proper she was the Fox. Four paws, a tail and a snout and not a care in the world.

Still, she had to be Reinhild again when she made camp. The Red Fox could not stand to eat vegetation or rations- she ate only meat. And of course, as the Fox her backpack and other belongings were inaccessible to her. She wondered where that stuff went when she changed, and if she really changed at all. Perhaps the Red Fox was somewhere else, waiting her turn, and when she adorned the beautiful red and orange furs, Reinhild was sent there to wait until it was her turn again, still holding on to her backpack and Helmatöt.

This new dual existence had brought Reinhild joy in a way that she had previously thought inconceivable. The Red Fox filled up parts of her that were broken or missing. Where previously she had felt a perpetual torment of loneliness and isolation, there was now the Fox.

Eventually, down south enough that the landscape was already changing back into the familiar shades of brown, red, orange, yellow and sometimes a rare purple of blooming heather, she found a stream, one of the many offshoots of the Lus, and for the first time saw her new face.

Her human skin had changed as well. Previously she had been scarred, ragged, and aged far beyond her years. The scars of abuse, of drug addiction and of combat had marked her into something unrecognizable from the pretty girl she had been in her youth. Now she was back. Skin ragged into pale leather was once again soft and supple. Eyes once clouded by past chemical dependencies were bright again. But she hadn’t simply reverted to a younger self. She was more beautiful now than she had ever been. The horrible scars on her left arm had been filled with fillegreed gold resembling a tattoo instead of simply fading. Her freckles were all shades of Autumn, orange and red and gold. Her hair was the most striking of all. Red hair wasn’t uncommon in her tribe, but it could hardly be called red now. It was akin to fire, and she swore she could see the myriad red hues subtly shifting.

She cried amber gold tears of joy and realized she wasn’t human anymore.

The Red Fox wasn’t content with traveling across the coastline and avoiding all human life. She wanted to visit towns, she wanted to be seen. Reinhild wanted to be seen. She wanted villagers to whisper about her as she passed by. So she made her way straight down south, only swerving to avoid the black forests. She moved at double pace, running in four paws when her two legs tired, and within a week she arrived in Pyrite, a large trading village just south of the vampire lands, the first settlement that could truly be considered part of the lands of Autumn and Luson.

From a hill just northeast of the town, she was astonished to see Summer Knights dotted around the city. Several of them were building a pyre, and several others were rummaging through the pockets of a dozen dead mercenaries wearing the colours of the great merchant houses of Lusan.

She shook her head as she descended the hill and approached the little city. Was there ever not war? Most surprising was that the forces of Summer had made it this far north. She doubted that Luson had fallen in the weeks she had been gone, so perhaps they were attempting to encircle Autumn. At the very least Summer Knights were somewhat more pleasant company than mercenary outfits. Annoying as their relentless religious preaching could be, it was preferable to having to deal with mercenaries with no working concept of consent.

“Hail, traveler,” one of the guards posted around the town said as she approached. They weren’t wearing a helmet, and yet it was hard to tell if they were male or female. The inhabitants of the lands far down south, where the Sun still reigned, were androgynous out of their armor. Behind platemail it was just about impossible to tell for Reinhild.

“Hello, good knight,” she greeted them. “Have the forces of Summer taken this town?”

They nodded. “Aye. That means this town falls under Summer Law right now. You are familiar with this?”

“Yes,” she said. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” She then gestured in the direction of the corpse-pile. “The mercenaries give you any trouble?”

“Some,” the knight said, who relaxed their grip on their lance. “We lost a few good men and women. If reinforcements do not come soon, we will have to abandon this town again.” They shook their heads. “Until then, be mindful of the peace She has brought to your lands.”

Reinhild nodded. “Of course. Thank you.”

The knight nodded to her as she walked past, into town proper. As she did, the Red Fox stirred inside her mind. Adventure. There were opportunities for heroism here. This conflicted her, as she had wanted to head down to Hyacinth as soon as possible. The time for her next duel was nigh, and she desperately wanted to be her champion. Still- she was the Red Fox, and she could not deny her new nature.

So she headed straight to the huntsman guild, only to find that the forces of Summer had burned it to the ground. Of course- the hunters worshiped Autumn, in a way. Instead she headed to the center. The town was built around an old church, and she might find information for work there. A lead to an adventure. A quest.

The church was a grisly sight. All around it were upturned crucifixes with burnt corpses attached, some still smoldering. Vampires, she realized. They weren’t exactly welcome in lands under the dominion of Autumn, but the worshippers of Summer absolutely despised them. Still, it was odd to see this many of them around. There weren’t any knights here, but the doors to the church were open. She walked in, and found it mostly empty.

“Sorry,” a man said to her, sitting on a chair next to the altar. A black block covered in bloodstains and rusted chains and spikes. “No sermons or sacrifices, orders of our new, ahem, Goddess.”

Reinhild raised one eyebrow in confusion. This didn’t seem to be a normal church.

“What church are you affiliated with?” Reinhild asked. Autumn tolerated all kinds of strange cults in his domain.

“Oh,” the man said. He had horns, she realized. Small ones, protruding just above his forehead. Perhaps this was a church devoted to the Deer God after all. “We’re of the Dominion of the Nine Spoked Wheel. But the knights outside object to our beliefs, so church is out for the time being.”

“Ah,” Reinhild said. “What beliefs are these?”

“Oh, I could regale you with tales of the Wheel for days,” the man said. “But they’d have my tongue, you know. Perhaps they’d nail me to one of my own crosses, to air out together with the vampires for a while. So alas, you’ll have to wait until Autumn inevitably takes over again.”

“I see,” Reinhild said. “Do you happen to know if there is work to be found for adventurers, folk-heroes and other never-do-wells around here?”

“Funny,” the priest said with a chuckle. “You’re the third person to ask that today. I’ve sent the other two to the tavern.” He then stared at Reinhild, intently.

“What?” She snapped, perhaps a little harsher than she had intended.

“It’s nothing,” the man said. “It’s just that you don’t see someone so profoundly saturated in the heraldry of Autumn everyday.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Reinhild asked.

The priest shook his head. “The colours, you see. Pay me no heed. I’m old and silly.”

“Hmhm,” Reinhild murmured. “I’ll go to that tavern you mentioned. Where do I find it?”

He gave her directions, and she headed down to the tavern, just south of the church. It was a lousy tavern, both literally and as a figure of speech. It reeked inside, and the windows were so grimy barely any light filtered in. Candles burned in sconces on the walls, the wooden walls too damp and moldy for them to pose any real fire hazard. She retched as she walked in, her sharper-than-normal senses assaulted by a cacophony of rancid smells.

It wasn’t busy by any means, but there were still a fair amount of customers.

“G’day m’lass,” a pot-bellied man the size of a fair boulder said from behind the bar. She could barely make out what he said. “Whad’ll it be for ye?”

“A glass of ale and some information,” she said as she walked up to the counter.

“Aye, buh thad’ll depends on the infuhrmation, lassy.”

“Just wanted to know if there was any work around here for sellswords now that the knights have burned down the huntsman guild,” she asked.

He laughed. “Yur in luck lassy,” he said. “Sum wise-erd frum over yonder is lookun for help.”

“A wizard? Really?” She asked. It probably wasn’t an actual magician, they couldn’t be bothered to leave the Spire for all the gold in the Lands.

“Hurmhum,” he replied, whatever that meant. “Is sitting in the cornuh, with some rugh folks.” He pointed over to a secluded corner, with three figures huddled together, conversing.

“Thanks, I’ll go see if he can use one more,” she said as she dug a copper guilder out of her pockets and handed it to the man.

“Ah’ll bring yer sum gud ale, lassy,” he said. “And for yer new fruhnds, too, fur a guilder.”

She smiled, nodded, and headed over to the three adventurers the barkeep had pointed out to her. Startled that someone approached them, they fell quiet and looked up at her.

A man, a boy, and a girl. The man was old, and grizzled. He had the scars of a war veteran and a frown to match, clothed in the garb of an outdoorsman and a heavy leather coat. The boy wore a cloak akin to that of a monk, and grinned at her with a wry, knowing smile. The girl seemed barely older than the boy, yet wore a fine chainmail and black leathers. Black was a colour almost impossible to paint, so her armor was probably worth as much as a small house in Luson.

“Well well well,” the old mercenary said. “What do we have here?”

“A fox to join our hunt,” the boy said, startling Reinhild.

“You jest,” the girl said. “She’s dainty like a princess.”

“Which of you is the wizard I’ve heard so much about,” Reinhild shot back, not wanting to be outdone in a game of words.

The boy’s smile broadened, and he nodded. “Sit down. I take it you’re looking for work.”

Reinhild gestured for the mercenary to make space on his wooden bench, and sat down next to him, across from the boy and girl.

“I am,” she said.

“I’m Max,” the boy replied. These two here are…”

“You can call me Carver,” the mercenary grunted.

“I’m Lyren,” the girl said.

The boy nodded. “Three is a good number. Say, fox, have you ever delved into a dungeon before?”

She had, but as she attempted to reply, the other two started speaking over her.

“She’s famous or something?” Carver grunted. “That you know her name and all?”

“What kind of a name is Fox even? Where is that from?” Lyren said.

It was troubling that Max had instantly recognized her, but villagers and folk of the wild had started to call her the Red Fox months ago.

Max made a waving motion, as if to shoo some thoughts away. “No, no, fox is a moniker for seductive, red-haired women where I am from.”

“You will find me far from ‘seductive’, boy,” Reinhild said, stressing ‘boy’.

“It’s not an insult,” he said, putting on an air of innocence. An artificial air of innocence, Reinhild realized. “What do we call you?”

“Just Reinhild is fine,” she replied.

“Reinhild- of course,” he shook his head and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Reinhild asked.

“Don’t bother,” Lyren said. “He’s been doing this all day. He laughs at things as if they’re jokes only he understands.”

“Wizard shit,” Carver said.

“I see,” Reinhild said. The boy unnerved her a little. She loathed soothsayers and magicians, people who hid themselves in the folds of wordplay.

The barkeep came over, and placed four stone mugs with foul-smelling ale on the table.

“Gifd fruh the lassy,” he grunted and left.

“That’s nice,” Max said.

Carver just nodded at her and drank his ale in a single, astonishingly massive gulp. Lyren shoved hers to him, which he drank just as quickly.

“I can’t stand this stuff,” Lyren said.

“The young lady is used to better,” Carver said. “I don’t mind.”

“Let’s get to business,” Max said. “I need strong warriors to help me raid a dungeon. It’s hidden, untouched for many many decades. Chock full of treasure.”

“Dungeons are prisons,” Lyren said. “What’s this one keeping in?”

“A powerful amulet,” Max replied. “Wizard shit. This immediately brings me to the next subject: your payment.”

“What about it?” Carver asked.

“I only need the one amulet. It’s tremendously valuable, but only to me- it’s wizard stuff. Whatever else we find is yours to split three-ways.”

“Hey,” Reinhild said. “I haven’t agreed on anything yet.”

The boy looked at her. Through her. “The events of this day were decided long ago, by the men in high places who decide all things.” Without so much as giving her a chance to respond, he continued. “The dungeon is a treasury of Autumn, full of stuff he has impounded from disgraced nobles and heretic magicians and the like.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Lyren said. “I don’t like messing with magic stuff.”

“Don’t worry,” Max said. “That’s my job.”

“Guards?” Carver asked. “Traps? Hexes?”

“The dungeon is dug underneath an abandoned tower. Rumor has it that it’s haunted, but when I scouted it out I saw no sign of ghosts- instead, it seems angels have taken up residence.”

“Hold up,” Carver said. “Where is this dungeon? I haven’t heard anything about angels for months.”

“In the Forest of Forever Fall, three days walk from Luson.”

“Nonsense,” Carver said. “Angels, that close to inhabited lands? The huntsmen would’ve been upon them like vultures. Autumn wouldn’t tolerate it.”

“No,” Max said. “The dungeon is under a spell, making it impossible to find for ordinary men. And people go missing in the Forests all the time- makes no difference if it’s dryads or angels.”

“Hm,” Carver said, seemingly not entirely convinced.

“Aside from the angels,” Max continued, “there’s monsters roaming the dungeon. Autumn occasionally turns fallen huntsmen into beasts, and when he doesn’t use them for his private hunts, he uses them as guards.”

Carver licked his lips and made an unsettling slurping noise upon hearing this. “Beasts,” he said, with an almost bestial growl.

“Traps?” Lyren asked.

“No idea,” Max said. “We’ll have to be careful. But I know a trick or two.”

“Hm,” Lyren said. “Carver?”

“Oh, I’m in,” Carver said. “I haven’t filleted angels in a while, and I’d like to see these beasts, as well.”

“If he’s in, I’m in,” Lyren said.

“Reinhild?” Max asked as he looked at her with the same feigned, innocent smile he had produced earlier.

She wanted to take her time to consider. She didn’t trust these people, but she had no choice. The Red Fox wanted in, and so she nodded ‘yes.’

“Fantastic,” Max said. “Time is of the essence, meet me at the southern reaches of the town in two hours.” With that he got up, and left. He didn’t so much walk out, as that he hop-skotched away. It made him seem even younger than he already did. An awkward silence fell over the table.

“Well,” Reinhild said, trying to break the deafening quiet. “Can he be trusted?”

“Obviously not,” Carver said. “He’s either a wizard or a young noble playing to be one. Still, you can hardly say no to a fresh and virgin dungeon to despoil at my age.”

A shiver of disgust went up Reinhild’s spine.

“If he turns out to be no good, we can stab him in the back and sell him by the pound,” Lyren said, shrugging.

“I have to head down to Luson anyway,” Reinhild said.Though she didn’t like it, she was enticed by the prospect of fighting angels. So was the Red Fox. “Are you packed for travel?”

“I’m a woodsman,” Carver said. “I’m always packed for travel.”

“I don’t eat much,” Lyren said. “So I travel light.”

“If we don’t have to go gather belongings, I’ll go buy us more alcohol,” Reinhild said.

Lyren looked her in the eye. “Don’t overspend, dear.”

Reinhild shrugged, and headed for the barman. Guinevere had given her a pouch full of copper guilders, currency backed by the merchant guilds of the riverlands. She was a barbarian through and through though, regardless of her stint in the Twin Cities. Money was not innately a gross thing to her, but she wouldn’t want to be found dead with a purse full of coin. Coins were meant to be taken from city dwellers too weak to fend for themselves, to be stolen and spent on drink.

“Yuh’m barking with the wise-ard?” The barman grunted.

“Huh?” Reinhild asked. The man’s accent was thick and unusual, and she had trouble understanding what he said.

“Yuh a lassy from the land, rught? Rel folksy?” The man asked her.

She nodded ‘yes.’

“Them wise-ard is a clevuh ‘un, hm, buh clevuh tricks only fuhl ‘ity folks. ‘Is hidun in the folds of wurds is what they do, if yuh see me drift, lassy?”

Hiding in the folds of words. A month ago she would have rolled her eyes and thought she understood what the man meant- do not fall for riddles and such. But now she had seen things, and realized the truth in his words. He was being literal, if he understood it as such himself or not. Max could literally hide himself behind ‘words’, behind the folds and curves a story takes.

“Hmhm,” she said, nodding. “They can’t fool me. I grew up in the forests, I won’t be deceived by the clever arts.”

“Gut,” the barkeep said, vigorously nodding. She tossed him another guilder, and asked if he could bring four more mugs of ale.

“Sur’ Lassy,” he said, grinning.

She headed back to Carver and Lyren and sat down, this time next to Lyren instead of Carver. The man made her slightly nervous.

“Where are you from, Reinhild?” Lyren asked. “I can’t quite tell from looking at you. You’ve got the soft skin of a noble, and the hair of a demigod. You drink like a man and thread like you’re expecting to have to draw your sword at a moment’s notice. No, I can’t quite get a bearing on you.”

Reinhild made a sharp ‘tsk’ with her tongue. “I could say the same about you. You’re young as they come, and waste vast wealth on your looks. Did your father buy the black dye for your armor?”

Lyren snorted. “Of course he did. He had a smith from the black forests forge me a rapier, and clothed me in weightless mail and stylish black. Anything to get me to consider adventuring instead of making a bloody mess of our maids.”

It took Reinhild a gargantuan effort not to retch. A noble’s daughter, and a psychopath at that.

“Lyren’s a spoiled brat,” Carver said. “But she’s not entirely right in the head. That makes her sharp. Dangerous. A good huntress.”

“As if you’re wholly sane,” Lyren said. “Now you, redhead. Where are you from?”

“I grew up in the forests around Luson,” Reinhild said. “As part of the barbarian tribes that refuse to trade the freedom of the land for the comforts of city life. My armor is equal parts mercenary skin and trollhide. I’ve skinned, tanned and worked the leather myself. My kind expects you to be wholly self-sufficient. Even the men can sew and mend their clothes- and if they can’t, they freeze to death. This is how we’ve stayed strong for centuries.”

Lyren shook her head. “I find it hard to believe you. Nevertheless, we don’t need to like each other. We do our job, we revel in riches and we each go our own ways again.”

“That we will do,” Reinhild said.

The barkeep brought their drinks, two for Reinhild and two for the disgruntled huntsman across from her. Lyren theatrically turned her face from the drinks, pretending the sight of the ale alone would make her throw up.

Then, they headed to the path through the southern reaches to wait for Max. While they stood there, under a signpost and next to an old weathered fence, in the endless sea of late-autumn fields, Reinhild took her time to carefully observe her temporary companions.

Carver carried a heavy backpack that he could detach by pulling a single cord, allowing him to drop it to move quicker if need be. He carried no obvious weapons, but she heard metal clanging in his heavy, leather duster. A lot of metal- the man was carrying half an armory around in his coat.

Lyren spoke the truth- she traveled light. She had no belongings aside from her expensive armor and boots, a girdle and a rapier in a sheath. She moved strangely, and left no footprints, not even when passing over mud. A curious sight.

The others were similarly scanning her. She wondered what they thought of her. Self-consciously, her hand moved onto Helmatöt’s hilt.

“What’s that sword like,” Carver asked, his eyes following her hand. “Looks a damn slight too broad for a proper arming sword. Bit short, too.”

Without answering, she unsheated her beloved shortsword and held it out in the light for him to see. The dull metal seemed a flat gray under the perpetually overcast skies.

The mercenary whistled. “That’s a nasty sword,” he then said. “That’s the work of a sorcerer, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Reinhild said. “But it never dulls. It is sharper than an ordinary sword, too. In battle, it seems to move on its own. Never have I missed my enemy’s vitals with it, because it thirsts for blood and seeks out arteries of its own accord. Once, a man stole it from me, and it jumped out of the sheath and killed him on its own. I sleep holding it, and some months ago I awoke having already deflected an arrow shot at me.”

“You jest,” Lyren said. “That’s preposterous.”

“Hm,” Carver said. “I’ve seen such blades before. It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Reinhild sheathed Helmatöt again and shrugged.

Not long after, Max came hop-scotch down the road, bouncing around as if he were a young child. He carried only a small bag, fastened to his back with simple ropes.

“I’d half expected you’d come carrying a staff,” Lyren said.

Max laughed. “You’d get in trouble saying that to the wrong people. Proper magicians dislike staves and such- that’s folk magic. Let’s head out, we’ve got quite a ways to walk.”

They headed out, the four of them. Carver’s pace was so high he kept disappearing out of sight, over hills and around bends in the road. Inevitably they’d find him waiting, cross-legged at the side of the road.

After walking for a day, Lyren wanted to look for a tavern, but both Max and Carver objected. “We should just set up camp some distance from the road,” Carver said. “No reason to waste money and catch fleas at the same time.”

He was surprisingly at quick setting up a camp. He dug a fire pit, built a fire and lit it with a little contraption he had stashed away somewhere before setting up a rudimentary tent with supplies from his heavy backpack, all in under two hours. He then lit and smoked what Reinhild recognized as a cigarette- a drug sometimes consumed by woodsmen. A far cry from the opium the rich and lordly in the Twin Cities consumed, looked down on as a drug for paupers and outcasts. Still, it wasn’t exactly cheap- it was sold by only one of the great merchant houses, who grew the herb near the riverlands.

“What’s for dinner?” Max asked, rubbing his hands near the fire.

“Whatever you’re carrying,” Carver said. “I’m not sharing.”

Reinhild shook her head as she took hardtack out of her own backpack. Guinevere had supplied her well. So well that it was almost a shame. It made life easy. She couldn’t grow dependent on such things- she would grow weak.

“Alright,” Max said as he shook his sleeve and produced several brightly coloured objects. Paper, Reinhild realized as he ripped the wrappings off. Painted paper as wrapping for dried food of sorts. He had to be preposterously wealthy to afford to waste luxuries such as paper and paints on storing his food in aesthetically pleasing ways.

“What are you eating?” Lyren asked.

“Chocolate and army rations,” Max explained, his mouth half full. “Want some?”

“No thanks,” Lyren said. “I don’t eat a lot.”

Reinhild saw Max squint his eyes as he stared at Lyren, and a strange tension formed in the air.

“You’re one of those, then?” He asked, a suspicious smile forming on his face. He pulled on his robes, exposing his neck, and turned his head sideways. “Is this what you want instead?”

She rolled her eyes. “What do you think I am?”

“No?” He asked, rubbing his neck. “Maybe it’s not the neck that entices you then. Is it warm thighs? Or are you all lady-like, gently biting into wrists and letting it pour into your mouth.”

“Shut up,” Lyren muttered. “You know not what game you are playing.”

“I know it well,” Max said as he started walking towards her. “You think I’ve never met halfbloods before? I have it on good word that my young, vigorous blood is an absolute treat. It’s because I eat so much chocolate, is what I think.”

Lyren looked at the ground, grimacing. Reinhild couldn’t quite tell if she was shamed or angry. So she was a crossbreed, half vampire. She must’ve been quite the black sheep of the family, if she was noble-born.

“You play a dangerous game,” she said to Max. “What if I had less self-control, and couldn’t help but tear into you after being taunted like that?”

“Why don’t you?” He asked. “You don’t have to blame yourself. I’m asking for it.”

“Stop,” she muttered.

“I’m not joking,” he said. “Let’s give Carver and Reinhild some space and head to the hill over yonder.” He darted off, child-like and carefree. He gestured for Lyren to follow him. She hesitated for a moment more, then followed him.

“Is he going to be alright?” Reinhild asked Carver. “Did you know she’s a vampire?”

“As the wizard said, she’s a halfblood,” Carver grunted. “It’s none of my business. He seems to have some sick appreciation for her kind. Let him have his fun. If anything I prefer this to having her skulk about a town looking for a dimwit roaming the streets at night.”

“No wonder her father would rather be rid of her. I can’t imagine the other nobles in Luson giving him the time of day if it came out his daughter was half vampire.”

“Luson?” Carver asked. “She’s a Walkenburg. Lyren Walkenburg. She’s the offspring of one of the vampire monarchs and a mortal dalliance.”

“Oh,” Reinhild said, a sudden chill seeping into her bones. She wondered how she managed to keep running into the shadiest people the Lands Lost had to offer, one after the other. “Where do you know her from?” She asked.

“I have good relations with the vampire monarchs. I met her at the huntsman guild in Eisenstein. We’ve been traveling companions for a while now.”

“I see,” Reinhild said.

Hours passed before Max and Lyren returned. The sun had long set, but still Reinhild could tell that they were covered in grass, heather and dirt. The straps on Lyren’s armor seemed to have been hastily fashioned, shoddily. Her armor rattled as she walked by, and kicked Carver awake, who had since gone to sleep.

“What?” He asked, annoyed.

“Make some space for me, I want to sleep,” she replied. Carver shuffled to the side of his tent, and Lyren crawled in next to him.

Max stretched his arms, and laid flat down near the campfire. He pulled the cowl of his cloak all the way over his head, and immediately started snoring.

Reinhild had propped up her travel pack behind her, and was sitting with her back against it, resting with Helmatöt in hand. She didn’t really need sleep anymore, but rest was still nice. Occasionally, despite her semi-waking state, dreams still came to her.

So the days passed. During the day, they marched, avoiding larger settlements, and at night Max and Lyren snuck off into the shrubbery. They, and Carver, left Reinhild mostly alone. Carver didn’t have much to say regardless. This was fine with her. She wasn’t one for much talking either.

Four days later, they were marching through the Forest of Forever Fall, following hidden trails that Max pointed out to Carver, until finally they stood at the edge of a hidden vale. It surprised Reinhild that something so large could be so well hidden, but as Max had said, it was probably the work of a hex. Without the boy they would never have found this place. In the middle of the vale stood a dilapidated tower. Three angels circled around the tower, and several more sat squatting on the roof.

These weren’t the civilized sort of angels Reinhild had been surprised to learn existed up north. They were naked, and communicated in bestial grows. Bones full of eerily human bitemarks were strewn around the veil.

“Seven or so of them,” Carver said. They sat just behind the treeline, and kept close to the ground. The angels hadn’t spotted them yet.

“I’ve never fought flying foes before,” Lyren said. “This should prove interesting.”

“I can make it hard to notice us as we approach the tower,” Max said. “Do we have a plan of attack?”

Carver put his hand in his coat, and pulled out a crossbow. A small one, with a strange system of pulleys attached to the brass limbs. “I shoot one or two of them, and as they come for us we wait for them with blade in hand.”

“That’s, that- that is hardly a plan, Carver,” Max said, somewhat annoyed.

“Do you feel like sneaking up on them under the cover of sorcery, barbarian?” Carver asked Reinhild.

“No, I prefer your plan,” Reinhild said. Seven feral angels should hardly pose a problem for her on her own, the way she was now.

“Suit yourself,” Max said. “You’re the slaughter experts.”

Without word or warning, Carver stood up, walked out from under the trees, and lit a cigarette. He loaded his crossbow, wound it, and waited for the angels to notice him. It didn’t take long, and with horrid, shrill screeching the three that were already airborne moved towards him with frightening speed. He aimed, shot, and missed.

“What?” Lyren said, annoyed.

“What?” Carver spat back. “You try shooting a moving target from three hu-” he was interrupted by the first of the angels swooping down at him, and Reinhild rushed forward, drawing Helmatöt as she dashed to assist the mercenary.

He was in no trouble to speak of, though, as he drew a long and slender knife from his coat and sidestepped the angel in one fluid motion. Reinhild had hardly seen him bring his knife to bear on the angel, but she rolled on the ground, screaming in agony as pale blood spewed from her wrists. Her hands laid at Carver’s feet.

A second later, the other two were upon them. Reinhild let herself be rammed by the pale, winged woman dropping herself from the sky on top of her. She brought her shortsword up as the angel crashed down on her, then rolled over and pulled her sword to the side in a short, jerking motion. As she got up the angel trashed around beneath her, her abdomen cut open and in blind panic as her intestines spilled out.

Lyren was grappling with an angel of her own, having neglected to draw her rapier. The two rolled over the thorny ground as Reinhild wiped the blood of her sword and walked up to Carver.

“Is she going to be alright?” She asked. Max was nowhere to be seen.

“She’s playing with her food,” Carver said, followed by a deep sigh.

She was indeed playing. Whenever she got the advantage while wrestling with the angel, she slipped up on purpose to prolong the fight. Eventually, the hyperventilating and screeching angel started to foam at the mouth, her movements slowing. Realizing her toy was running out of gas, Lyren pinned her to the ground by the wrists, and bit into her neck.

It took almost a minute before the angel finally died, her cries slowly turning into whimpers as blood poured out of her neck, Lyren lapping it up as it did.

Reinhild had to look away. Less than two weeks ago, she had had a supernatural hunger for flesh and blood herself, but she had never enjoyed it. It had been a curse she struggled with, not something she delighted in. Seeing Lyren like this made her feel deeply sick.

“Alright,” Max said, crawling out from under a bush when Lyren was finally done. Her mouth and neck were covered in blood. So was her armor. “That was horrible,” Max said, shaking his head in disapproval.

“What?” Carver asked.

“This is serious,” Max said. “Not playtime. The other angels are going to realize their friends bit the dust, and ready themselves for a fight. We can’t afford to goof around like this. Please try to take this just a tad bit more seriously.”

“They’re angels,” Carver said. “We’re hardly peasants and farmers.”

“There’s dangerous beasts lurking in the dungeon below,” Max said. “And angels can still pose a threat if you’re just playing around.”

Lyren spat at him. Most of it was blood, and not her own. “You were hiding in the bushes while we fought. I don’t want to hear a single word of criticism from you, pretty boy.”

Max smiled. “I can fight if need be,” he said, putting on the fake smile Reinhild had grown used to seeing by now.

“Hm,” Carver said, picking up the cigarette he had dropped in the scuffle. Despite it being thoroughly ruined, he stuck it in his mouth. “The others have vanished, what are they planning?”

“They’re not stupid,” Max said. “They were watching, we killed three of their sisters while playing about. They’re setting up an ambush.”

“What do you mean?” Lyren asked. “They’re beasts, right? They look like people but they’re not?”

“Fo- Wolve- Jesus Christ, god damn you and your planet without animals,” Max stuttered while shaking his head.

“What?” Reinhild asked.

“The analogy would be lost on you, forget it,” Max said.

“That’s not what I was asking and you know it,” she said, staring him straight in the eyes.

“Save this nonsense for when we’re done,” Carver said. “Or save it altogether. You,” he said while pointing at Reinhild, “Are never going to achieve anything arguing with him. And you,” he said, pointing at Max. “You did that on purpose. I don’t know what it means, but it clearly means something to the redhead. I would advise you to drop the wordsmith act, before you accidentally provoke some foul barbarian temper and she rips your head off.”

Max looked at his feet while muttering “Suit yourself.”

“Let’s head towards the tower,” Lyren said.

They approached the dilapidated building in the centre of the vale, weapons in hand. Carver walked in front, flanked by Reinhild and Lyren. Max lagged behind a little, and kept looking behind them.

“Is someone following us?” Carver asked, without looking back.

“No, I don’t think so,” Max said.

“Do you have reason to suspect someone is following us?” Carver asked.

“Better safe than sorry,” Max said. “I’m the paranoid sort. We’re breaking into a vault of Autumn, we can’t afford to be seen.”

“Where have these bitches gone?” Lyren asked.

“Inside,” Reinhild said. “If they have any sense of tactics they’ll attack us on the stairwell. I wonder if it’s a clockwise or counterclockwise turning stair.”

“That matters?” Max asked.

“Yeah,” Reinhild replied. “Most men are right-handed. If the stairs twist clockwise, it is hard to fight right-handed if you’re trying to go up. Defenders will have the advantage. But some people are left-handed, and then you have the advantage fighting up. Some mercenary outfits train to fight left-handed, so they build their towers with that in mind. Additionally, if you expect to lose a tower and want to make it difficult to keep, you can build the stairs twisting counterclockwise up, giving right-handed defenders trouble on the stairs.”

“I hate city folk and I hate towers,” Carver grunted.

“So, if the stair twists clockwise and the angels have spears or blades, we’re in trouble?” Lyren asked.

“I’m left-handed,” Reinhild said. “You should’ve noticed that the moment you first saw me. Pay attention to details like that or others can get the drop on you.”

Lyren laughed. “Unlike you mortals I have nothing to worry about. My skin is hard as iron, and my wounds heal at a dozen times the rate yours do. My muscles are faster, my mind is faster. I don’t need any crutches.”

Carver shook his head, but didn’t say anything.

They approached the base of the tower. Whatever building had been attached to it in ages past now lay in ruins. The remains of a wooden door lay in the doorframe leading into the tower proper, dark and wet and soft with mold.

“The dungeon was dug underneath the tower,” Max said. “The tower was ground zero for some calamity, and haunted as a result. Autumn intended to keep the restless dead around as an additional safety measure.”

“But you said there were no ghosts,” Lyren said.

“There aren’t. I would’ve sensed them the moment we set foot in the vale.”

“Angels drove them out?” Carver asked. “They’re related to death, right?”

“They’re related to a different death,” Max said, without elaborating. “Angels shouldn’t be able to nest in a place already occupied by ghosts.”

“Whatever happened happened,” Lyren said. “The angels now serve the role the ghosts originally did. Can we go straight down or do we have to take care of them first? They’re probably holed up at the top of the tower, waiting for us to attack, so why don’t we just look for the way down and leave them be.”

“Jesus Christ,” Max said, shaking his head.

“What?” Lyren asked.

“If we go down and the angels follow us, we might be attacked from two sides at once,” Carver explained before Max could.

Lyren sighed.

“Let’s head up,” Reinhild said. The tower did indeed circle up clockwise. “I will go in front,” she said as she walked through the doorway, Helmatöt at the ready. “If you can assist me with trickery, follow close behind me,” she told Max. Then she turned to Carver and Lyren. “You cover us. If they intend to spring a trap on us, they might be hiding nearby to rush up after us and attack us in the back. You’re right-handed both? You have the advantage against attackers coming from below.”

“Trickery is my middle name,” Max said as he hurried after her.

As she climbed the stairs, she breathed in deep. There were four people upstairs. If there had indeed been seven angels total, they weren’t intending to execute a flanking maneuver. But they might be up to other tricks, so she advanced cautiously.

When they almost reached the top of the tower, passing once-solid floors that now were naught but wooden beams and rubble, the angels still had not struck.

“There’s something wrong,” Reinhild said. “They’re waiting for us at the top floor,” she said as she pointed up at the wooden ceiling above them. It was untouched by decay, as if the ravages of time had decided to spare the final floor of the tower.

“I smell sorcery,” Carver said, a few paces below her.

Her heart racing in her chest and the golden filigree on her arm aching as she clenched her fist around Helmatöt’s grip, Reinhild reached the top of the stairs and carefully looked around the corner.

The sight was not what she had expected. The room was covered in treasure of all stripes. Gold, jewelry, weaponry, tapestries, expensive looking wooden furniture- it was like the personal treasury of a guild merchant or a minor lord. Candelabras with magetallow candles and ominous blue flames lined the walls, and to the wall, aside the remains of a ladder leading to a hatch in the roof, stood a throne.

It wasn’t a proper throne, but it played the part of one. Three angels, naked and with wild eyes, stood around it. They growled as they saw Reinhild, but did not attack. On the throne sat a fourth angel, this one clothed, though in rags. On her head was a simple crown carved from wood. Around her neck an amulet, a single green gemstone held by a silver, skeletal hand attached to a simple chain.

“Welcome,” the angel said, grinning. “Welcome to my prison.”

Reinhild walked into the room, and signaled the rest to follow her. Carver and Lyren did so, but Max was nowhere to be seen.

“This is in jest,” Lyren said, breathless upon seeing the wealth collected here.

“You are clear of mind and can speak?” Carver said, addressing the angel on the throne.

She nodded. “Yes. Pray tell, what has brought you here?”

“Rumors of a dungeon, guarded by beasts of Autumn,” Reinhild said before the others could speak.

“Alas, you are too late,” the angel said. “It has since been raided,” she added, pointing at the treasures in the room.

“You did so, I assume?” Reinhild asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “How did you manage to get into this place?” The angel asked.

“Why do you ask?” Carver said, interrupting Reinhild right as she was about to answer.

“There is some trick to it,” the angel said. “I tried to leave this place again and again, but no matter how far I fly or walk, I find myself back where I started. In all this time, nobody except them wandered in either.” She gestured at the angels around her as she said so.

“A wizard came with us,” Reinhild said. “To show us the path through the hex.”

The angel her eyes narrowed. The wild angels around her growled. There was something up with her, Reinhild thought.

“What are you?” Reinhild asked. “You’re not an angel.”

Before she could get an answer, Lyren walked past her. “It doesn’t matter. She did our hard work for us. Ten against one that that amulet around her neck is what our wizard friend came here for.”

A second later, the room exploded into violence. The three angels surrounding their leader dashed forward like mad dogs, completely taking Lyren by surprise. She thrashed around on the ground, screaming as they bit into her arms. Reinhild and Carver rushed for her, hacking at the naked mass of wings and limbs assaulting her. Reinhild managed to cut a nasty gash into one of their wings, before the angels each used their wings to propel themselves away from the three adventurers. The sheer amount of air displacement knocked Reinhild flat to the ground, her ears ringing. As she crawled back up, she saw Carver had managed to remain standing, and that despite being grievously injured, Lyren was climbing back to her feet as well.

An angel, claws dug into the ceiling, looked down at Reinhild. Before she could coordinate where the other two had gone, it dashed down at her. The room was too small, too cramped, to have an eight man brawl, Reinhild realized. As the angel was upon her, she traded skin for fur.

The Red Fox bit into the arm of the angel, pale and rigid flesh barely yielding to her teeth. Still, surprised and panicked, the winged woman tried to shake off the fox, making things worse for herself in the process. Her eyes darting around, the Red Fox created a mental map of the situation. Carver and Lyren were standing back to back, both injured, though she did not doubt they would manage to prevail.

Then, the angel finally managed to pull the fox off of her arm, though at the cost of a chunk of her skin and flesh. She howled in pain as the Red Fox landed neatly on four feet, and dashed back, this time to bite her leg. As the angel fell to the ground, clawing at both the ground, her wounds and the red furry creature attacking her all at once, the Red Fox traded claws and teeth for thumbs and blade, and Reinhild drove her sword into the struggling woman’s throat. Swiftly making sure her foe was dead or dying, she spun about to rush to Carver and Lyren. She found Carver in combat with two foes at once, slowly circling around him. Lyren sat with her back against the wall, wheezing, struggling to breathe and coughing up blood.

Carver kept his foes away by threateningly jabbing at them with his strange knife, but it would be but a moment before they would find an opening and tore him to pieces. A leather coat would not save him from the unnaturally strong angels and their clawed hands. They were a moment too slow to see Reinhild come for them, and they both screeched in surprise as she drove Helmatöt through the back of one of them, clean through her spine and then out of her chest. Blood gushed out of the wound on both ends, and Carver used the moment of distraction to slash along the throat of his own opponent. His blade seemed supernaturally sharp, as he cleanly decapitated his foe with what was effectively a large knife with nary a hint of effort.

Their first three foes down, Reinhild turned to face the last of the angels, who had folded over double on her throne. She was wheezing with laughter. Determined to end the fight before she could prove dangerous as well, Reinhild ran for her.

BACK,” the angel yelled as Reinhild was about to strike her, and a tremendous concussive force ripped into Reinhild, throwing her back across the room. She hit her head on the wall, and almost lost consciousness.

Carver stood, crouched, and dropped his knife. He raised his hands above his head in a gesture of surrender.

“Autumn you all are funny,” the angel laughed.

“Apologies for my young friend here,” Carver said, doing his best to put on an air of diplomacy. “She’s half vampire, you see.”

“Fuck you,” Lyren spat in between hacking and coughing.

“I don’t mind,” the angel said. “I haven’t had this much fun in a decade. But now you’ve killed most all of my puppets, and that won’t do.”

Reinhild struggled to get to her feet, but the room seemed slanted somehow, and smelled oddly of burning, of smoke. She had trouble holding on to Helmatöt as well, and realized she had suffered a concussion.

“I don’t like where this is going,” Carver said.

“Let’s propose a deal,” the angel said. “Ordinarily I would’ve taken you as replacement puppets, but you know the way in, and I assume, out of this place.”

“What of it?” Carver asked.

“I would like a larger playground with more puppets,” the angel said. “I propose an alliance of convenience. You don’t want to be turned into puppets, and I want to leave here.”

“Hrmph,” Carver grunted.

“Fuck her,” Lyren said, as she tried to crawl back on her feet.

“Well,” Carver said. “How do we know you won’t do to us whatever it is you do the moment we lead you out of here? I find it hard to trust someone who just threw one of my allies across the room with magic.”

“Well,” the angel answered, theatrically putting a finger to her mouth in an exaggerated ‘thinking’ gesture. “I guess you can’t know that. We’re at an impasse, then.”

“Can I put in a word?” Max asked, suddenly standing next to Reinhild. He put a hand on her shoulder, and looked at her. “You okay? Can you stand?”

The angel laughed again, delighted. “That’s cute, where’d you come from?”

“I was there,” Max said. “I’m just hard to notice. I take it you’re Emain?”

“Well colour me surprised,” the angel said, her eyes wide with surprise. “Are you someone I’m supposed to know?”

“A friend of a friend of yours,” Max said. “A benefactor wants to see you freed, so he sent me to retrieve the amulet. Though I reckon you’re not sealed anymore?”

“No,” she said, smiling. “These angels cleared out the dungeon. Their leader had a human-like intellect, allowing me to swap.”

Max nodded.

“What in all of the Lands are you two talking about,” Carver said.

“She’s not our enemy,” Max said.

“Like hell she is,” Carver spat back.

“You can’t leave wearing that skin, though,” Max said. “We’ll be shot on sight if we approach Luson with you looking like that.”

Emain made a sadistic grin. “I quite like having wings, but you’re right. What do you propose, boy?”

“Max,” Carver said, his voice a deep, dark and guttural growling. “What are you talking about?”

“The lady against the wall,” Max said while pointing at Lyren, “is a Walkenburg. She’s as strong as ten men and quite pretty to boot. With some effort you could pass yourself off as her.”

“What?” Lyren said.

“No,” Reinhild muttered, brushing Max his hand off her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“Alright,” Emain said. “Sounds good to me.”

Carver reached into his coat, but before he could draw a weapon Emain brought him to his knees with a staggeringly loud “KNEEL.”

Desperately to clear her head and recover full consciousness, Reinhild shook her head around, but only made things worse. She barely avoided throwing up as her legs, too, buckled out underneath her.

What happened next was confusing. In a single moment, Emain’s behavior changed. She fell off the throne, thrashing around. “Help,” she yelped. For a second Reinhild thought that Max had done something to her, but the she realized it wasn’t Emain. Not anymore.

On the ground, struggling to make sense of a foreign body with too many limbs, lay Lyren.

“Do you need the amulet?” Max asked as he helped Emain, previously Lyren, to her feet.

“Stars,” Emain said with Lyren’s voice. “What a strange sensation. I can feel my busted ribs healing in my chest as we speak.”

Max waved his hand before her eyes. “You fully in there?”

“Yeah yeah,” she said, brushing his hand away. “We don’t need the amulet, it’s magic is spent anyway. Do I turn the other two into puppets? Because that takes a while.”

Max looked Reinhild in the eyes. “You wanna come along with us? You still get paid, of course.”

Reinhild did her best to crawl back to her feet. She would rather die than willingly follow two sorcerers, but she couldn’t abandon Hyacinth like that. She needed to get to Hyacinth, to fight duels for her. Hyacinth was all that encompassed her currently clouded mind.

“Iahm hurt,” she said, staggering forward. She reached for Max’s hand. “I’ll come along. Carver?” She had to keep her sentences short and focus on her breathing to maintain a semblance of consciousness.

“Carver?” Max asked.

Carver was still forced on his knees, visibly struggling against the invisible binding that held him in place. “Wizard,” he spat. “Either give me back Lyren, or kill me now. Fail to do either and I will hunt you down for the rest of your life. You will not know sleep or safety, because whenever you let down your guard I will be there, waiting for you.”

Max shrugged. “I take that as a no. What about her?” He asked, pointing at Lyren, still struggling to make sense of her new body.

“She’ll acclimatize to her body eventually. Let her and the old man have some fun trying to get revenge,” Emain replied, laughing.

Max nodded and walked out of the room and down the stairs. Lyren-Who-Was-Now-Emain shrugged, and said “Well, let’s go then,” to Reinhild, and followed him down.

“Wizard,” Carver screamed as the three left the tower behind them.

Reinhild limped after them, but only until they were clear of the hex surrounding the tower and vale. The moment she could find her way on her own, she traded feet for paws and darted off into the forest. The Red Fox would carry her until she could walk on her own again, nurse her back to health in the depths of the forest. And then she’d head for Hyacinth- but she would remember these two.

Neither Reinhild nor the Red Fox took kindly to betrayal.


1 thought on “Emain”

  1. I liked this one a lot! Featuring Reinhild, voluntary vampirism, Carver, *and* Maxwell being a bastard makes the chapter feel like it was designed to pander to me though, lol. Lots of interesting moving pieces, I’ll have more complete thoughts once I’ve read 18 too.

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