Rallos Defilsson wipes his brow, then tucks the handkerchief into his belt. The rain stopped just before dawn, and the air is pregnant with the earthy-sweet scent of mycenoid spores. Moving on, he watches his steps to avoid crushing any of the fat round mushroom caps littering the loam. Cold light limns the fog-shrouded village in the vale below the slope. Thatched rooftops emerge and then vanish behind shifting mist. Rallos catches the whiff of woodsmoke, and a single clang as from a smithy’s hammer tells him the village is shaking itself awake.
“So there will be folk here,” he whispers, patting Himo’s long nose. The mare tosses her head and whickers, eyes rolling; she is as loathe as Rallos to go among people but does not resist his gentle tug on her lead.
The last village they visited, some two months earlier, was a place of the dead. Bodies littered the streets and fields, rancid and bloated; victims of some raider band or worse. Mostly the place was picked clean, but Rallos found enough provisions to allow him to drift back into the mountain wilds for another long stretch. He stopped to stare into several of the dead’s vacant eyes, examining their bodies despite the disconcertingly floral stench to make sure the slaughter had not been the work of Defilers or their ilk. But the wounds were all of the mundane variety—axe and sword blows, crushed heads, gutted bellies. Nowhere did he see the telltale blistered scorch marks or gaunt blue-hued faces beneath cracked skulls sucked clean of brain matter. Then he moved on, glad enough not to have to converse with the living.
From a distance, this new village projects the dwimmer of prosperity—stone houses rather than wood or turf. But as he steps in among them, Rallos sees the houses are ancient, likely hundreds of years old, the stones cracked and mortar long since crumbled to dust beneath moss and vines, roofs overdue for re-thatching. Straightaway, suspicious eyes behind half-open shutters and in shadowed doorways mark his presence. Two men and a woman step out into an open square, waiting for him to approach.
He sees no weapons, senses no outward hostility. Only wariness, a thing he understands.
Approaching this welcome committee, Rallos senses without needing to turn that others have emerged from houses to follow him and Himo down the muddy lane. “Easy, girl,” he whispers, patting Himo’s neck.
When he stops some twenty feet before them, he feels their gazes roam his face, lingering on his lobeless ears and long neck, the ruddy-gold hue on his high cheekbones, the quicksilver sheen to his lank brown hair—all those telltale signs that essentially shout the Woodwere side of his heritage. Pretending not to notice their scrutiny, he forces what he hopes is a warm smile; such things do not come naturally to him.
“Good morning, friends,” he says. “I’m in need of supplies. Feed for my horse, boots for myself, a new bowstring if you have any. Some of my armor is in need of mending, as is my horses’s tack and harness. And if you keep hives, a pot of honey suitable for making a wound poultice. I’ve some small coins, or if you prefer, I’ve a harvest of deep-wood truffles I could trade.”
“You’re a long way from home, ain’t ye,” the oldest of the three—a man with skin the color of curdled milk and a scruff of gray whiskers—answers him just before their continued silence would have proven uncomfortable. “No Woodwere anywhere round these parts, leastwise not for generations.”
Rallos nods, struggling to keep the smile fixed. “I’m from a small village much like this, in the Allontair region.”
“Never heard of it,” the old man grunts, then spits noisily.
Rallos lets his smile drop. “Yes, well, it’s more than a thousand leagues to the south, beyond the warring lands.”
The woman sucks a breath, rheumy bloodshot eyes going wide. “And how did you pass through the war lands?” Her dark skin has a grayish hue that speaks of illness, and Rallos offers a silent prayer to his ancestors that he has not exposed himself to some contagion by coming here.
“I didn’t. I left home a long time ago, before the war began. So if you do have any goods I might—”
The third one clears his throat. “We’ve not heard of your Allontair.” He scratches at a pink scar puckering the sallow skin below his left eye. “But we have heard tales of the half-breed who wanders the wilds and who might be willing to hire himself out for the right price...”
Himo snorts through flared nostrils and shakes her mane, sensing Rallos’s discomfort with the direction the conversation has taken. “I could do a spot of work for you,” he says, keeping his face impassive. “Mend some roofs. Repair a wall. I’m a passable carpenter, if you—”
Scar-face lets out another throaty grunt. “Might be we need a different sort of work. The kind calling for a sword rather than a hammer and saw.” He points at the weapon sheathed at Rallos’s hip.
Rallos stifles a sigh. “I’m no mercenary.” It is not entirely true, but it is closer to the truth than what these folk likely mean. He has no interest in involving himself in some local squabble.
“But you’ve helped others when—” the younger man persists.
“I have helped others when it has allowed me to stamp Defiler taint from this world.” The familiar rage rises within him at the mere use of the word. He forces his hand back down to his side when he finds it straying toward Halefire’s hilt. “I’m not interested in bounty hunting or revenge killings.”
All three villagers smile; oily smiles Rallos doesn’t like. “Oh, I think ye’ll be interested in this.” The old man laughs, inclining his head sideways. “D’ye see that keep on the horizon?”
Rallos looks eastward where the man’s liver-spotted head points. A sinister-looking fortress stands upon a low hill, half hidden in the dissipating mists. Rallos chides himself for not noticing it before it was pointed out to him. Already his wild-honed awareness is slipping now that he has come among so-called civilized folk.
“What of it?” he says through a sigh, hiding his embarrassment behind feigned boredom.
“We’ve a half-breed of our own here,” the woman answers.
“Woodwere kin?” Rallos hasn’t seen one of his mother’s people in nearly thirty years, and has never met another like himself who carries a mixed heritage.
But the woman is shaking her head. “Defiler kin.”
“A dreadlyng?” Rallos growls before he can stop himself. “Living out in the open?”
The woman shrugs. “No law against it, is there?”
“There should be.” He has encountered their like before—men and women who carry some taint of Defiler blood in their veins. Such a mix is unfortunately more common than his own, owing to the rapacious nature of Defiler-kind.
“On that we agree, friend,” the old man says. “This particular dreadlyng calls himself Morthos. Since he took up residence in yon keep seven years back, he’s taken all our meager bounty, and withers what crops he don’t take. He’s even stolen away some of our children for his wicked rites. And there’ve been other, strange creatures drawn to our surrounds. Nightmare steeds that frighten off the game, a ban síde on the moors whose wails keep us awake at all hours. There’ve even been winged—”
Rallos raises a hand, cutting off the man’s rising voice. “Enough. I know what their kind do. What they’re capable of.”
“Well then,” the younger man says, taking an eager step closer. “If you deal with this wretch for us... slay him or drive him off, it’s all the same to us... we’ll give you those things you asked for, and we’ll pay you good coin besides. Ten silver marks. What say you?”
Rallos doesn’t even need to think about it. “I say you have yourself a deal.”
Once re-provisioned, he could again vanish from the world of men, while at the same time leaving that wider world with a little less of the very sort of evil that orphaned him mere weeks after his birth...
The closer Rallos draws to the keep on the low hill, the less he likes it. As the village behind him, the building is old, ancient even. But whereas the decay he observed among the hovels was a natural thing, this looming edifice seems somehow corrupted, an oppressive presence whose very stones look... diseased, unwholesome. It sits like a squat blight upon the hill, a crenelated wall surrounding five or six tall towers, all of dark stone that absorbs the day’s wan sunlight.
Once he’s beneath the wall’s shadow, Himo tethered at the treeline behind him, he stops to listen, but the entire hilltop is silent and still as the grave. No birds call from nearby trees; no insects buzz about his head. Even his own footsteps upon the rocky soil seem muffled. There is a wide iron portcullis in the keep’s eastern wall, but beyond it the structure looks to have caved in upon itself, leaving an impassable rubble mound within the sally port. Rallos circles the entire structure, seeking some other doorway or even a low window, but he finds none, the only openings several dark arrowslits high overhead that stare reproachfully down at him.
But it isn’t the building’s imagined scrutiny that causes Rallos’s hackles to rise. No... there is something else—something within. He feels the dreadlyng’s foul presence, his sixth hunter’s sense marking nearby prey. He puts a hand out to touch the nearest wall and draws back at the stone’s icy cold. That brief touch leaves an oily gray smear upon his fingertips that he wipes with distaste on his cloak.
Many of the stones have crumbled to give the wall a pockmarked surface. Some are deep enough to provide hand and footholds. Before he can talk himself out of it, he shoves his toe in a likely crevice and hoists himself up with his fingertips in a long crack in the masonry. It takes all his will not to release his grip, as the cold stones are like nothing so much as some dead reptile’s scaly hide.
Up and up he goes, scrabbling toward a mist he would swear was not there when he began his ascent but which now obscures the wall’s crenelated top. His fingers begin to numb from the cold as he fixates on the pearly white nothingness above him. Anyone or anything could lurk in that haze... The dreadlyng himself, with a heavy rock poised to knock him toward a backbreaking reunion with the ground...
Refusing to let his unhelpful fancies get the better of him, Rallos climbs, hand over hand, muscles burning. Before long he has his arms around a crenel, and then he is up and over the parapet, dropping onto a narrow wall-walk.
Crouching, he moves along the walk until he comes to a wide tower. He enters through a doorway in which little more than a few bits of worm-eaten wood cling to rusted hinges. All is dark within but for a hint of light beyond a long passage. He slows his breaths as he leans out beyond another open doorway’s frame, just enough to see into the brightness beyond.
A great room, some fifty or more feet in length.
At the far end, behind a wooden table, stands the dreadlyng the villagers named Morthos.
The dreadlyng faces away, toward something at the side of the room still obscured from Rallos’s view, but the fiend’s profile tells Rallos all he needs to know. A deep depression splits the man’s chalky white forehead, and where his ears should be are little more than vestigial puckers of flesh around tiny holes. Just above the brow depression, a ridge of bony spines begins, growing rougher and blacker as they run back to part the hair along his skull’s crest before disappearing behind a high collar.
A moment longer, Rallos watches in disgusted fascination as the vile man-beast’s body twitches and lurches as he puts his muscles into grinding something in a large mortar and pestle before him. Reagents, no doubt, for some rite or malicious magick.
Rallos, even as he keeps his breathing shallow and silent, feels the mounting bloodrush of hatred, a pulsing pressure at his temples and a steady whoosh in his ears that, as ever, becomes the whispered voices of the dead crying out for vengeance. The Defiler Lord that slaughtered his own parents might well have been an ancestor in this dreadlyng’s own tainted bloodline...
For you, mother.
Rallos leaps into the room, drawing Halefire from her sheath as he rushes across the open space separating him from his prey... With the room’s far side coming into sight, he has a brief impression of impossible vistas: a dozen or more doorways that must be magicked portals into other lands, other realms... Snow-capped mountains, roiling green seas, bright figures that might be human...
“No! Stop!” the dreadlyng shouts, turning toward him. Fear fills his eyes, and Rallos lets the creature’s terror drive him forward. He breathes those words that call to life the power imbued into the runes carved along his sword’s blade...
For a heartbeat it is as though Rallos is outside his own body, looking down upon the room. He stands poised, blade ascending. The dreadlyng’s hands are up, palms out. An instant, frozen in time.
Then the floor gives way, crumbling around him. For the space of a breath, he is actually skipping along stones that have already broken off into midair. With a last, desperate leap, he flings Halefire aside and grips the edge of what has now become a pit in the chamber’s center. His fingernails split as he fights for purchase, but he slides inexorably back, dangling above a drop that will surely mean his death.
In a flash, Rallos sees a fall of silvery hair over bright green eyes: his mother, or at least the vision of his mother that sometimes comes to him in dreams and nightmares. There is love in those eyes, a nurturing protectiveness that tells him—that lies—how nothing bad will ever happen to him...
I should not have left Himo tied... He prays someone will find her, so she won’t starve among the oaks.
His fingers slide closer to the edge... Just at the moment he would have lost his grip and fallen, a hand grabs his right forearm, strong hold digging into his muscle and sinew. He looks up, and it is the dreadlyng, Morthos, staring down at him, eyes wide and mouth set in a grim line as he strains to drag Rallos up and out of the pit to safety.
“You have good reflexes,” Morthos gasps, waving a long-fingered hand to fan away the stone dust that billows into the chamber from below. “I’ve been meaning to repair that weakened section for years, but I never seem to get to it.”
Rallos pushes himself to his feet, straightens, and meets Morthos’s gaze without speaking. What can he possibly say? His sword lies on the floor several feet away.
He lunges toward it, but Morthos is quicker. Halefire is well beyond the dreadlyng’s reach, and yet he seems to push it with only a wave of a hand so it goes skittering several more feet across the stone floor. His other hand comes up, a cruel-looking dagger whose blade undulates snakelike in his grip as if summoned from shadows. Rallos finds himself on the ground again, the dagger at his throat.
“Please don’t make me have saved you for nothing,” Morthos grunts.
Rallos gives a curt nod. He knows when he’s beaten, although it is a rare enough sensation and one that tastes like gall.
“I’ll let you up,” Morthos says, “but no more nonsense.”
Rallos nods again, and in due course he gets to his feet for a second time.
“I don’t take kindly to visitors,” Morthos says, eyes narrowing. “Certainly not ones who suddenly appear in the middle of my studio.”
“I...” Rallos begins, then stops to gather his scattered wits. “The villagers—”
Morthos rolls his eyes with an exaggerated sigh. “I see. You are not the first person they’ve sent here, though it has been some months now since they’ve done so. What have they been telling you? Tales of wickedness and depravity? Have I been consuming their young? Or was it that I demand a virgin be delivered to me upon the solstices and equinoxes? My, but they do have quite the impressive imagination, even if it does tend toward the salacious and the macabre.”
This dreadlyng does not sound at all like any of the other ones Rallos has encountered. He speaks in a warm, almost melodious voice, and were Rallos to close his eyes he might think himself merely in the presence of a gregarious gentleman. It is obviously a false veneer meant to lull him into complacency—much like the dreadlyng’s having saved him from the fall—preserving him, perhaps, for some worse fate...
“They accuse you of oppressing them. Of taking all they—”
“Oh my! I dare say I don’t think about them long enough to oppress them. They merely want me gone because they want my good farmland, which I must admit, for the most part, I allow to lie fallow.”
“Farmland?” Rallos parrots, irritated at how dimwitted he sounds and finding his irritation unaccountably directed more at the villagers than at the figure before him. Why must he sound so damnably reasonable?
“Doubtless,” the dreadlyng answers. “I grant, word of my presence might tend to keep outsiders away from their monthly market, which shrinks the village coin purse. But my presence also keeps them safe. Only once since I have taken up residence here has a renegade band from the warlands thought to come and plunder, and I took care of that nuisance.
“I’m sure the villagers found some way to blame me for those raiders coming in the first place. But oppress them? No friend, that I have not done, unless they find my artwork oppressive, which they’ve every right to do.” He sweeps an arm back at the canvasses scattered about the room behind him. “All the world’s a critic.”
Rallos gapes. Not portals. Paintings. There are dozens of them. Bright, lovely scenes. And not only landscapes but portraits, some so lifelike Rallos half-expects the figures to wink at him. One small canvass depicts a brown-skinned mother with her arm wrapped protectively around a little boy’s chest as the boy leans forward to peer at an oversized toad perched on a plug of gray stone.
“You painted all of these?”
Morthos nods. “This room has the best light, so it’s where I do most of my work, and I only have to remember not to walk on the far side where the wooden undergirdings are rotted away. I suppose I should thank you for your... er... renovation, as it will now be far easier to remember where not to walk.” He gives Rallos a smile that comes easily to his blue-black lips.
Rallos looks more carefully at the mortar and pestle and the piles of pebbles and leaves and dried berries upon the nearby table. “Pigments. For your paint. I thought... That is, I thought...”
Morthos claps his hands in something like glee. “You thought they were reagents for some nefarious potion or wicked ritual. To summon a Defiler relative perhaps?” Another loud laugh. “Friend, even if I were misguided enough to do such a thing, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Rallos blinks at him, wondering at the fact that his gut tells him to believe the man. He stifles the instinct, reasoning that his wits are still addled from his near-fatal fall. “Pretty words, but I don’t believe you.”
Morthos cocks his head. “Don’t? Or don’t want to?”
“Defilers are living embodiments of evil,” Rallos rebuts. “A corruption of all that’s good and pure, a remnant of the chaotic energy released at the world’s creation. They are single-mindedly driven to multiply and achieve greater influence beyond their own dark, otherworldly realm. It is in your nature.”
Morthos shakes his head, almost sadly. “I had no say in the circumstances of my birth. None of us do. I was born into a family whose bloodline carries an ancient trace of evil, it is true. But one’s birth need not dictate the course of one’s life. Over that I do have a say, as do we all.”
How many times has Rallos made a similar argument when confronted with superstitious preconceptions about his own Woodwere traits? More times than he cares to remember. “Maybe, only...”
“Yes?” Morthos arches one thick eyebrow.
“I have encountered your kind before,” Rallos says, “and always those men and women had given in fully to the demands of their bloodline. I have seen... great evil. Never once in my two-score and ten years have I met any able to overcome heredity such as yours. Perhaps I’ve fallen prey this day to the fool’s trap of assuming something cannot exist merely because I’ve not yet seen it. But I’d be an equal fool to revise my opinion—an opinion formed from experience—based solely on some honeyed words.”
“Fifty years! Ah yes, of course, your... Woodwere heritage, is it? Which would confer upon you some of their longevity. I, on the other hand...”
Rallos drops his eyes awkwardly, knowing what Morthos speaks of. Defilers themselves are all but immortal unless slain, but somehow the taint of their blood in a mortal does not prolong life. Quite the opposite. Most dreadlyngs do not live past fifty years; many for only a fraction of that span.
“I like to think it makes my life like a flame that burns brighter while it lasts.” Morthos gives a small laugh, again mirthful rather than bitter.
He is lifting a hand, long fingers twitching, and the telltale mark of Defiler sorcery causes afterimages of those fingers to bend and blur in the space through which they move. Something leaps from a smaller table on the room’s far side, and Rallos curses himself for letting his guard down. I should have known better!
He lunges past Morthos for his sword, then rises to his feet so the blade moves to the dreadlyng’s throat in one fluid motion. Only then does he see the object the dreadlyng has summoned: a limp cloth, dripping with soapy water...
Morthos extends his hand, offering the cloth. “Your head is bleeding,” he says, unable to prevent a disdainful curl from overtaking his lips. “From the falling masonry.”
A deep well of shame abruptly opens in Rallos’s breast. He came here ready to snuff the flame of this man’s life merely because it existed, never once stopping to consider the flame itself is not necessarily an evil thing unless used for evil purposes or if permitted to burn out of control. But Morthos strikes him as anything but reckless or uncontrolled, and certainly not wicked. And Rallos knows flames can also be beneficent; fire cooks meat, cauterizes wounds, gives new life to decrepit woodland... In contrast, his own actions have been those of a man lacking control. Impetuous. Overzealous.
Rallos draws a deep breath and removes Halefire from the dreadlyng’s throat.
“I have wronged you, sir,” he says, meeting the dreadlyng’s gaze once more. He takes the offered cloth and touches it to his forehead, wincing.
Morthos merely waves a dismissive hand. “You are not the first. Superstitions about my kind are rampant, and in truth, the reputation is not wholly unearned.”
But Rallos is shaking his head, staring at his own blood that now stains the cloth. “No. I am not one to lap up rumor and gossip and think it fact. Rather than take those villagers’ word, I should have made my own findings before deciding on a course. Only... when it comes to your kind... I do not always find it easy to be objective. You should understand, though, it is not a bias born of hearsay but of a more personal nature. It is a bias nonetheless.”
Morthos peers intently at Rallos, a hard stare of reproach bordering upon anger, the first hint of it Rallos has seen in him. “As for your actions here today, they are easy enough to forgive, and I have already forgotten them. But if you seek some wider redemption for your past deeds, I’m afraid those are neither mine to forgive nor to forget.”
It is as if he has slapped Rallos. “Forgive?” he splutters. “I seek no forgiveness for my past. Those... those creatures were... That is, whatever you may be, they were something else altogether. What they... their kind... did to...” In a day filled with surprises, Rallos all at once confronts the greatest shock of all when he feels tears well up in his eyes. He cannot remember ever having wept; not since his earliest childhood. Not in the privacy of the wilds, and certainly not before another.
“My mother...” he tries, but fails to continue, swallowing against a lump in his throat. “She—”
“It’s fine,” Morthos whispers, the anger melting from his features. “No need to explain yourself.”
But Rallos shakes his head. “No, I want to. I need to.” And perhaps because of some perverse kinship he suddenly feels with this “half-breed,” or perhaps merely because he believes he owes Morthos a debt for having possibly misjudged him, Rallos finds himself beginning to tell this man, a stranger, the story that has never once passed his lips.
“My mother,” he intones, the words leaden, his mind hazy, “was cast out by her Woodwere kin when she wed my father, who was human. They lived with his people in a small farming village. Unbeknownst to my father, his brother was among those misguided folk secretly pursuing the way of vile sorcery.” He falls silent, wondering as ever what could have driven his long-lost uncle to have been so stupid. How different his life would have been had the man only... only...
“This uncle of mine...” Rallos sucks a deep breath to clear his head. Every word comes as if wrested from a clinging mire, and at the back of his mind he wonders if the dreadlyng is casting some spell upon him, compelling him to speak, or is it only his imagination?
“My uncle sought to summon a Defiler Lord far more powerful than he could control. When it manifested, it slew him. Slew all in the family household, including my parents, along with half the inhabitants of the village. By some wonder, I survived, for I had been suckling at my mother’s breast beneath her cloak, or so I have been told, and I thus escaped the Defiler’s notice.
“Word of the disaster got back to the nearby Woodwere settlement, and my forest kin agreed to take me in and raise me. None of the surviving humans had any interest in raising a half-breed infant from the family that had all but destroyed their village. For a time, I was happy among the Woodwere. But there were... nightmares. And some of my Woodwere companions saddled me with the byname Defilsson, which in the local human dialect translates to ‘Defiler’s son,’ or ‘dæmon-spawn’.”
Morthos nods and lets out a heavy sigh. “Children can be cruel.”
“I find cruelty a most common trait among folk of all ages and breeds. But I tell you, as time went on, I came to cherish the byname that was meant to hurt me. Rallos Defilsson. I use it still as a... well, a sort of badge of defiance. But that was not always the case. In my fourteenth summer, when I began to notice even the adults among the Woodwere could not hide their distaste from me, I ran away. And I kept running, until I reached the farthest uninhabited wilds and wastelands I could find.”
“Let me guess,” Morthos interrupts. “Since then, you have kept yourself on the outskirts of civilization—something of a hermit, if I don’t miss my mark.”
Rallos stares at the dreadlyng, at the self-satisfied smile. Had the Defiler Lord worn a similar grin as he tore the throat from Rallos’s mother? As he devoured the contents of Rallos’s father’s skull? The rage fills him again, rising through his body like cold floodwaters. I could still kill this half-man...
“I know something of the hermit’s life myself.” Morthos’s eyes soften, the smile all at once less mocking and more...
Rallos takes a half step back. “A hermit?” he snaps back. Then his voice grows hard, each utterance a dagger thrust. “I move from place to place, chasing whispers, seeking out all tales of Defiler taint. They draw me like moth to flame. When I am not alone in the wilderness, I am in remote libraries. Ancient ruins. Or scenes of more recent slaughter. Always studying the Defiler-kind’s brutal ways so as to learn how I might thwart them. Once I broke up a cult of men and women like my dead uncle, and... as you have doubtless guessed, I do not hesitate whenever the opportunity presents itself to dispatch a... well, a dreadlying.”
“Like me,” Morthos says, his smile now becoming wistful.
Rallos nods, forcing himself not to look away in shame as some part of him unaccountably feels inclined to do. “For thirty years, that has been my life...” He trails off as Morthos begins laughing. “You... you find this amusing?”
“All that study! I’d wager you know more about my own kind than I do myself. I would dearly like to pick your brain.” He closes his eyes with a self-deprecating grimace. “Poor choice of words. Indeed, my own eating habits are rather ascetic—no meat at all, only greens and grains and cheese.”
“My brain and I are both glad to hear it,” Rallos answers, the rising tension all at once broken by the ridiculousness of their exchange. He marvels at what a strange and unexpected world it is as the two of them actually find themselves laughing together. “Well and good, then. I’m glad enough to answer any questions you have. Let’s call it recompense for breaking your floor. But I can’t promise all I’ve learned is accurate. As you say, there is also a great deal of rumor and misinformation bandied about.”
“Then we’ll discuss it at our leisure on the road,” Morthos says. “Separate the wheat from the chaff, eh?”
“On the road?”
Morthos nods, eyes narrowing. “Yes. I think your coming here is a sign of sorts, and I’ve decided I’m departing with you. Among other things, my presence might keep you from precipitously slaughtering the next of my kind whose path you happen to cross. That alone seems a good enough reason for me to leave this place.”
Rallos is speechless.
“You look as though you’ve been poleaxed,” Morthos goes on. “Listen to me, Rallos Defilsson. I think you’ve been too long by yourself. While there is much to be said for seclusion and solitary contemplation, I venture to say there is also value and satisfaction to be found in the company of others. It is long past time we both remember that. If nothing else, my paintbrushes need new inspirations—the sorts of vistas I’m more likely to find traversing the world than cooped up in a prison of my own making.”
Rallos opens his mouth to protest, but for a wonder he finds he does not wish to do so. In yet another discovery that shakes him to his core, he acknowledges a part of him would actually welcome this man’s company on the road. Maybe he is right, and I’ve become stuck in a rut. Maybe it’s time for a change.
He turns slowly to take in the ruin of Morthos’s studio. “But what of your—?”
“This place? As the floor behind you attests, it’s hardly a princely palace. Let the townsfolk have it. It’s what they want anyway, and I tire of their constant scheming to wrest it from me.”
“And your paintings?” Rallos asks.
“Those I will keep.” Morthos gestures with his left hand, and the canvases appear to fold in upon themselves, vanishing with a whisper.
Rallos shudders in spite of himself at this brazen display of what must be Defiler-based magick, but he composes his features as Morthos turns back toward him and even forces a shaky half-grin. “Neat trick, that.”
“Quite,” Morthos says. “Now then, I’ll just slip out unseen and await you in the hills, and you can tell those down in the village how you dispatched me to the nether-realms’ deepest pits. That way you can still claim whatever price they promised you.” He gives Rallos a wry look. “How much did they promise you, by the by?”
Rallos snorts. “Bugger their price. Let them keep it.”
Having followed Morthos down a narrow, spiraled staircase, Rallos waits as he puts a hand to the bare wall at ground level. A stone shifts, opening a hidden door on the keep’s east face not far from the collapsed portcullis.
The fog has mostly burned off beneath a noonday sun, and Rallos welcomes the bright warmth upon his skin. “My horse is this way.”
“Sounds as though she has company,” Morthos says, even as Rallos hears voices drifting from among the oaks.
He dashes ahead. Several of the villagers, including the young man with the puckered scar, are in the process of rifling through his saddlebags.
“What’s this?” he demands.
The villagers all but jump out of their skins, and scar-face turns toward him with a look of wide-eyed shock. Obviously they’d believed he would not survive his encounter with Morthos.
“My... good friend!” the man stammers, visibly working to compose himself. “We heard a great crashing din from the keep! So then... you’ve slain the evil one?”
Rallos steps forward, snatching one of his own cook pots from the fellow’s hands. “I found no evil in the keep. Indeed, it seems the only evil here is what I left at my back.”
The man flushes scarlet, which makes the white scar stand out all the more plainly. “I see how it is! You are in league with that disgusting ridge-head.”
Scar-face lunges, a dagger flashing in the dappled sunlight. Rallos draws Halefire and easily knocks it aside with a flick of his own blade. Undaunted, the man keeps coming. As Rallos lifts his blade to strike him down, there comes a touch upon his arm, strong fingers holding him back...
Morthos steps up alongside him, eyes now glowing a deep amethyst. Only then does Rallos notice that the villager stands frozen in mid-lunge. “You don’t want this man’s death on your conscience, Rallos. Leave him be. These shackles will wear off in a short while, but by then we’ll be long gone.”
The rest of the thieving villagers back away in terror, making signs of warding against evil. Then they are sprinting back toward their village, discarding Rallos’s belongings as they go.
Rallos shoves his sword back into its sheath and spits at the frozen villager’s feet. “You’re a better man than I, Morthos.”
But Morthos shakes his head. “No better or worse than most. Even this man here does what he does out of desperation, to feed his kith and kin. The village has seen hard times in the years since the war broke out to the south.”
Rallos gives a grudging hum of agreement.
“Now then, are you ready, my friend?” Morthos asks. “Unless, that is, my little display has changed your mind about traveling with me.” He points to his eyes, which are no longer luminous.
“It has not.” On an impulse, Rallos extends a hand, and Morthos clasps it in his own. For a long moment, Rallos stares down at his own brown fingers enclosed by the dreadlyng’s longer, chalky-hued ones, a sight he’d never thought to see. “The world is full of wonders,” he whispers.
“On that we agree. So let’s go find some of them.” Morthos turns over his shoulder to give a shrill whistle, and a heartbeat later a great elk with wide velvety antlers steps into the clearing, nuzzling at the dreadlyng.
Both men mount, Morthos without the benefit of saddle or bridle. The birds have taken to calling again, and from the east comes the distant lowing of wild cattle.
Side by side, in companionable silence, Rallos and Morthos ride northward toward the forested hills.