Loursa moved to Draeven's side, limping, sword dragging point-first through the dirt. "I thought you said there'd only be a few of them!"
"I did," he said. "Didn't figure every last one of them would be up and armed at midnight, either."
Understanding pounded over Loursa thicker than the falling soil. "They knew we were coming."
"We did, at that." From the mass of ragged but uncomfortably well-armed brigands, two figures advanced. Loursa knew instinctively that the one in the lead was the "Zarred" Draeven had mentioned. Steel breastplate over leather, an axe that looked like it had actually seen professional care, scars on top of scars... A bandit chief if ever there was one.
The other, the speaker, was a scarlet-haired half-elf who wore his chainmail awkwardly. His sleeves shone gold in the brigands' torchlight, and his left hand fiddled absently with a silver pendant that dangled from his neck.
"How?" Draeven demanded.
The half-elf shrugged. "Message from a friend."
"You stupid, Khydol?" This from Zarred. "Son of a bitch is stalling, is all. Let's just get it done, yeah?"
"Well, I'd have liked to know why this fellow's interfering, but I suppose it doesn't matter. Go ahead."
Zarred barked. Almost a dozen bandits raised crossbows. Loursa sucked in a deep breath, determined to at least die with dignity. Pity it had to be in this bastard's company.
And Draeven, after a moment of muttering to himself... laughed.
A chorus of low howls thickened the air around the condemned pair. Dirt kicked up and fallen twigs flew, yet not a single gust touched Loursa. Triggers clicked. A flock of bolts flew toward the pair and were just as swiftly hurled aside by the spectral forces. None even came close.
The bowmen recoiled, crying their dismay, but the half-elf—Khydol, Zarred had called him—advanced. Shouting, he raised the pendant around his neck. Loursa could just make out its three-pronged engraving, and while she knew little about magic of any sort, she recognized a spell when she saw it.
Whatever power Khydol hoped to invoke, however, was just as swiftly lost. Draeven raised his own hand in a peculiar hooking gesture. The tenor of the howling changed, ever so faintly, and the amulet tore itself from the chain around the half-elf's neck and hurtled through the phantom gale into the foreigner's waiting grip.
Khydol gawped, apparently having been stripped of language skills along with his pendant. Not so for Zarred. "Kill them!" thundered the bandit leader.
Loursa met the first of the attackers, blade clashing on blade. She allowed herself to be pushed back, retreating, watching as his strikes fell into a pattern common to the vicious but untrained. Strike, parry, step, strike, parry...
The guard from Kelbran delivered a short, swift kick, catching the bandit's ankle in midair with an audible crack. He'd barely begun to howl when her sword took him in the throat.
Loursa's withdrawal had taken her away from the man's companions, granting her an instant to catch her breath. She shot a quick glance behind to see how her own unpleasant companion was holding up...
She nearly choked. Draeven was staggering, reeling from blows that skittered across his hauberk or rang from his blade. The blood of several shallow cuts ran down his arms, dripped from between his fingers. He retreated before the enemy, worked to parry any weapon that came too close, but otherwise seemed lost in his own little world. The bulk of the gang was focused on him, Zarred included, and it was nothing more than simple geometry—only a few could reach him at any given time—that kept Draeven from being overwhelmed.
Another brigand, an ape of a man whose face was all beard and rotten teeth, demanded Loursa's undivided attention with his falling mace. His first blow numbed her arm from knuckles to elbow, nearly knocking the sword from her hand. A third attacker appeared from around the mace-wielder, jabbing with a spear. Loursa spun aside, dropped an arm over the shaft and twisted. The weapon flew from the bandit's grip, but by then the big guy was closing again, mace blotting out the sun...
An unearthly screech, high-pitched and keening, echoed over the village. Loursa was startled enough, but her foes seemed shocked into near paralysis; she disemboweled the nearer of the two bandits with a quick swipe before turning to see what had just occurred.
Draeven hung in the air a dozen feet above his opponents, slowly rotating in a phantom whirlwind Loursa could sense but not see or hear. His jaw gaped, distended almost to the point of breaking, yet the scream—only now beginning to fade—was not in his voice and seemed to come from around him as much as from within. Blood slid from his blade, painting an abstract pattern of spatters on the upturned faces of his foes.
Without warning, he dropped back into the bandits' midst, a blur of flashing steel and fists. As Loursa had witnessed back in Kelbran, ghostly arms seemed to guide Draeven's blade, driving it into organs. No matter the ferocity of the enemy that confronted him, he attacked with relentless resolve. Strokes that should have spilled his blood, even dismembered limbs, turned aside at the last moment, repelled by invisible forces. Brigands began to fall.
Screaming in rage—and perhaps a touch of fear—Zarred burst from between his men, axe hurtling in an arc that might have split a healthy bole in a single blow. Draeven crouched, spinning, so that the heavy blade passed clear overhead. Halfway through the turn he rose, sword outstretched.
The bandit chieftain was fast. Instead of being spitted, Zarred yanked himself from the sword's path.
It didn't help. Draeven thrust out his empty hand, slapping it against Zarred's chest.
Spirits groaned. Zarred screamed. And then he... withered. The flesh of his arms and face shrank against the bone, his eyes dulled in sudden pain; even his hair seemed to go limp.
It wasn't lethal, whatever the foreigner had done. But the next time Draeven's hand-and-a-half came around, it plunged clean through Zarred's chest with no hint of resistance.
The remaining bandits fled so quickly their own horses might have had trouble keeping up. Khydol was gone as well, apparently having run after he'd lost his pendant.
This time, Draeven didn't bother to pursue the survivors. Instead, after looking about to ensure no more bandits remained, he wandered over to the nearest house, shoved the door open, and vanished inside.
Loursa followed. She found Draeven slumped in an old chair beside a scarred and food-stained table. He gulped deep breaths of air—whether from physical exhaustion or because of something else, she could not tell.
"Why did you let them beat on you like that?" It wasn't the question she wanted to ask; she was working up to that one.
Draeven shrugged. "I can hear the ghosts' thoughts in my mind, but they don't read mine. I have to explain what I'm asking of them. Sometimes takes longer than might be convenient."
"Who the hell are they? Draeven, what are you?"
∗ ∗ ∗
Marcov hadn't planned on answering the questions. He never had before, and Loursa certainly wasn't the first to have asked. A curse was already squirming on his tongue.
It died unborn, smothered by a low moan deep in the recesses of his soul—a moan that only grew louder, more oppressive, the longer he kept silent.
"You have got to be kidding me!"
The moan became a shriek, nearly knocking him from the chair. The legs of the table began to vibrate.
"All right, all right!"
He steadied himself, only to notice Loursa staring at him. She looked as if she were trying desperately to figure out which of them had actually gone mad.
"Apparently," he growled, "they want me to tell you. No idea why, but I'm getting disgustingly used to that.
"I was a sellsword, and a damn good one. Did most of my work as part of a mercenary band, led by a guy named Craddek. Real bastard, the kind whose own mother would travel a week out of her way to avoid. But then, so were the rest of us."
"I'd never have guessed," Loursa said dryly.
Marcov ignored her. "It was back in early '08. We hit a town called... Shit, I don't remember what it was called. Not sure I ever knew, come to think of it. Few miles east of Saringallow, down in Isger. No war, no part of any contract. Just something we did occasionally between jobs to keep the purses full and the urges sated."
He grinned without humor as Loursa gasped and stepped back. "Not all that worldly, are you, ‘m'lady'? Most who earn a living with steel? Not much different than the men we killed earlier. They're just the bad guys when it's your home they're hitting."
A long silence, then. Marcov, despite his fatigue, rose from the chair and began to pace. "Things got out of hand this time," he said finally. "Peasants fought back harder than we expected. Killed a couple of the boys before we subdued them. Craddek was pissed, and the rest of us not much calmer.
"We killed them. All of them. The whole town was muddy with the mess, and when we were done, there wasn't a man, woman, or child left breathing."
The color drained from Loursa's cheeks.
"The thing of it is," he continued, "being dead didn't keep them from being angry. Really, really angry.
"I don't know why they picked me out of everybody there. Maybe it was random. Maybe I killed someone special. Hell, maybe it's 'cause I was born in Ustalav; we've got a whole culture built on ghost stories. Damned if I know, and they're not talking."
He stopped at the table, leaned on his knuckles. "I remember a howl, like a hurricane, and then screams... Countless screams, echoing forever. When I woke up, Craddek and the others were long gone—and I had myself a new band of traveling companions.
"I haven't lived my own life in years. They're with me constantly, Loursa. Every minute of every day, every second of every dream. They don't speak, unless it's through the bodies of the dead, but they're not shy about letting me know what they want me to do. They'll help me accomplish my ‘assignments'—you've seen them manifest their powers—but they don't ever take no for an answer.
"I wasn't in the River Kingdoms for you people. I was in Daggermark, trying to find Craddek. Keep hoping that if I can find him and the others, kill them, just maybe the damned ghosts'll be satisfied. You want to know why I showed up here? Why I give a tarnished copper about a few towns in Touvette? Because they do. Not the first time they've gotten me involved in this sort of crap, either. Guess it reminds them of, well, them."
He looked up into his companion's face, pale as the dead of whom he spoke, and wondered briefly what his own looked like. He'd never told the story before, couldn't even begin to separate and identify the emotions it stirred up now.
"That's who I am, Loursa. That's what I am. So you want to stand there looking horrified at me? Or shall we discuss what we can do to keep any more of Touvette's peasantry from joining the ghosts themselves?"
∗ ∗ ∗
"I'm terribly sorry, Master... what did you say your name was?"
"Oh, you got me," Marcov said. "I deliberately didn't mention it earlier, but you've tripped me up with your clever ruse. How did I let you outsmart me like that?"
The priest's scowl deepened the already severe crags of his aged face. "Whatever. I'm afraid I haven't the slightest idea who you're—"
"Must we? Half-elf. Goes by the name Khydol. Priest of Calistria."
It had been easy enough to figure out that much in the aftermath of yesterday's struggle at Alvren. Even if Zarred's corpse hadn't told them as much, the holy symbol etched into the stolen pendant was blatant enough.
Calistria, goddess of—among other things—retribution. So yeah, made sense that one of her priests might seek revenge on Touvette for the expulsion of the churches, especially if he or those he cared for were among the displaced. Loursa, given her attitudes toward religion in general, had been quick to accept that explanation.
Marcov was less convinced. He'd known a few Calistrians, back in his mercenary days. They could be savage when wronged, sure, but slaughtering whole villages of peasants—that seemed a little hard, even for them. And he still couldn't help but wonder who'd warned Khydol that he and Loursa were coming.
Conflicted and uncertain—Zarred knew only what he'd been paid to do, not why—they'd followed the dead bandit chief's directions to Khydol's home, a ramshackle town just across the border in Pitax. Once there, they couldn't split up fast enough for Loursa's tastes. Marcov almost smiled at her eagerness to seek out Khydol through the town's social gatherings, while he took the religious tack.
It's almost as if my story made her dislike me or something.
Now Marcov stood in a slope-roofed wooden structure built more like a northern feast hall than a church. Still, it was a sight one would never see in neighboring Touvette. Rows of kneeling cushions and blocks on which to sit faced a generic shrine over which draped an array of altar cloths, each embroidered with the symbol of a different god.
It was the town's only center of worship. Marcov knew it, and the priest knew Marcov knew it.
"There's zero chance," Marcov concluded, "that you don't know a fellow priest in a flyspeck like this one. So can we just skip all the denials?"
"Yes, I know Khydol," the priest admitted, tone as stiff as his back. "We forbade him from leading prayers here. He was stirring up trouble, preaching violence against Touvette."
"Decided to do more than preach it, holy man."
"Maybe so. But I'll still—" They both paused as a village matron strode through the door and knelt beside the shrine. "Still not deliver him to a thug like you!" the old man continued, his voice lowered.
Now Marcov did smile. "Sure you will."
"If you think you can intimidate me into—"
"Khydol is responsible for the destruction of half a dozen villages in Touvette, and the deaths of hundreds. You live near the border; you must know how the General's knights respond to those who threaten their people."
"We're safe here," the priest insisted, though his face had blanched. "King Irovetti—"
"Irovetti," Marcov interrupted, "is desperate for people to take Pitax seriously as a kingdom, rather than a den of thieves and beggars. If he were told that a nothing little community like yours was harboring an enemy of Touvette, at about the same time the General's men showed up looking for a little payback, you think he wouldn't grant them permission to do what they want with the ‘criminals'?"
The clergyman's jaw sagged; his hands visibly shook.
"Khydol dies either way, priest. Only question is, you want everyone else here to go with him?"
∗ ∗ ∗
"Can I help you, miss?"
Loursa gave a tired smile as she allowed the door to swing shut behind her. "Hope so. I'm looking for a man by the name of Khydol. People tell me he frequents your establishment."
"He certainly does," Ellithir said, her grin equally friendly. "Why don't you come in, and I'll see what I can tell you."
Coming Next Week: Deadly machinations and unforeseen encounters in the final chapter of Ari Marmell's "Best Served Cold."
Ari Marmell is an author and game designer, and has written extensively for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, World of Darkness, and more. His fiction includes the independent dark fantasy novels The Conqueror's Shadow and The Warlord's Legacy, the young adult fantasy Thief's Covenant, and the Iron Kingdoms novel In Thunder Forged, among others. For more information, see his website at mouseferatu.com.
Illustration by Damon Westenhofer