So much death for one man's desire

So much death for one man’s desire.

The rugged hills south of Epirus offered many places to hide from unwanted attention. Steep rocky hills, often strewn with boulders, rolled for miles, while trees, sometimes in long lines and other times in large clusters, stubbornly took root. Tall grasses and other scrub hugged the stream we were following and allowed us the privacy to rest frequently.

The sun was directly overhead when we stopped. I softened a small piece of bread with wine from my flask and handed it to Ilsa. To this point we hadn’t spoken a word to one another all day. Ilsa sat taking small bites from the bread and watching the water flow by when she broke the silence. “Why did this happen?” My mind returned to the books. I was about to begin explaining the relationship of the outer planes to our own and how one might travel between them when Ilsa continued. “I was raised in the church. My mother, she was the prefect of the Temple of Light. She always told me that the gods have a plan for us all.” The tension was building in Ilsa’s voice. She was angry and her tone made me uncomfortable. “What did we do to deserve this?” Afraid she might begin raising her voice again I said the first thing that came to my mind. “No one deserves this.” Ilsa looked at the charm around her neck. She began to mumble in hushed tones to herself. I didn’t try to listen, content that she was subdued, but the last thing she said to herself was clear. “I didn’t pray this morning.”

It was then that I realized that she must be a temple initiate. She could use healing magic to mend her wounds but had chosen not to. I had no answers for her. At least none that she wanted to hear. Anxious for this situation to end I offered a hand to help Ilsa to her feet. “We should keep moving.”

The sun had begun to fall beyond the western horizon when we began to look for a shelter for the night. The heat, even near sunset, was oppressive and the humidity made my lungs feel heavy as I labored to breath. Clouds of insects, the only wildlife we had seen since this nightmare began, harassed us making the summer day even more intolerable. Ilsa was limping and she made no attempt to fend off biting insects that swarmed her. Stumbling ahead, she had been mumbling the same prayer to herself for several hours. “Please accept our suffering as penance for our evils.”

The air in the gully moved only slightly with the slow flowing stream but I could see wind swaying the trees atop the hills to the south. The back of my head was pounding and my eyes were blurred. The cool water of the stream was inviting but I feared leaving the camouflage of the undergrowth for more than a quick drink. Turning away from the stream, I took Ilsa’s hand and began to climb the hill being sure to disguise our ascent behind the many trees and boulders that littered our path. Cresting the top we were greeted by a wall of wind, the cool air washing the fatigue from our bodies.

Collapsing in a bed of pine needles I stared up into the trees that crowned the peak of the hill. The sound of the wind and the creaking of the tree as it swayed was calming. Lifting my head I saw Ilsa sitting on her knees facing west, her body silhouetted against the setting sun. Looking over her shoulder she smiled and then turned to face west again. “Do you believe, Gaelin?” Sitting up my eyes turned south and I pretended not to hear her.

Ilsa crawled over to me and took my hands. “Do you believe?” Still not making eye contact I was growing tired of listening to Ilsa’s religious ramblings. “I don’t know what I believe.” I was clearly irritated and my temper was growing.

Ilsa let go of my hands and looked down. She was fighting back tears as she nodded her head. “I used to say the same thing to my mother. I didn’t understand why the gods asked so much of us when we received so little in return. Now I see what I took for granted.” I wanted to tell her what I really thought. No god was responsible for what happened. Taking a deep breath I buried my anger. “We need to find a safe place to sleep.”

Down the steep southern slope of the hill a jumble of massive boulders formed a pocket where we could find shelter from unwelcome eyes. Climbing down I began to feel guilty for losing my temper. As we nestled ourselves into the rocky alcove Ilsa sat next to me still deflated. Placing my arm around her I pulled her tight. “Tomorrow, if you want…” I don’t know what I was thinking but I couldn’t stop myself. “Maybe we could pray together.” I felt sick. What did I just agree to do?

The moment was mercifully interrupted by a crack of thunder and lightning followed by a billowing cloud of black smoke, like the pyrotechnics the master Karrna used to entertain children. Just below our roost and standing near a copse of trees was a man, stumbling out of the soot waving his arms and coughing. He was wearing the cloth of a nobleman but stained with the atrocities of the week. His well-fed belly exposed through tears in his shirt and jacket. Ilsa’s eyes widened and her teeth clenched in rage, “That’s him!” she snapped a little too loudly. Pulling her out of sight I could hear the man take a few steps and begin shouting.

“Molaam! Show yourself! I know it’s you who brought me here! Filth! Dog! MOLAAM!” Falk’s voice was thick with rage. “Tsk tsk Aldwin Falk. And I thought we were friends.” Another voice, smooth and refined, replied. Still holding Ilsa I peeked over the stone. A tall lean man, his black hair slicked back revealing two small horns, was leaning against a nearby tree. The angular features of his face were punctuated by piercing red eyes. Behind him a long tail darted while his cloven hooves carried him towards Falk. As he strode into the sun his long jacket tailored in exotic cloth, trimmed in gold, reflected a dazzling array of reds and purples. While the white of his frilled shirt and gloves also glistened. Even from a distance I could tell that he was heavily perfumed.

“This is not what we agreed!” fumed Falk. “You promised me the throne if I helped smuggle the Yuan-Ti into Epirus.” Falk’s hands were clenched. “They were to kill High Lord Sinjin and nothing more!” The devilish creature raised his hand and shook his head, “I promised nothing of the sort. You should really be much more diligent when entering into a contract my dear Falk.”

Ilsa pulled the dagger from my satchel and struggled to get away from me. Pinning her down I wrestled the dagger from her hand and mouthed the word “stop.” Still struggling, I became more angry than scared as I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. Placing my lips against her ear I found myself pushing the dagger against her throat. “You are going to get us both killed!” Ilsa, her eyes still wild, stopped moving while the devil below slowly walked around Falk. “Besides you owe my master more than just the services of a smuggler. The third son of every third generation shall be his.” Molaam stroked his beard appearing very pleased. Falk, who was unphased by this arrangement, was still pacing about, sweat pouring down his face. “And what about me! Nothing is left! I am left with nothing!” Molaam’s eyes rolled, “Foolish child” he muttered. “Be a good fellow and try to follow along. You have been given a gift. You are the head of one of the last surviving noble houses of Epirus. Your people will look to the High Lord and his remaining nobles for guidance and protection.” Molaam wrapped his arm around Falk and began to walk with him. His voice slowed and was almost hypnotic “Now is your time to seize the power you desire. The people will be looking for answers. Give them Sinjin.”

Falk stopped walking his mouth gaping. “You cheated me. I was to be High Lord of Epirus but you cheated me.” The rage had gone from his voice. Falk, his head hanging, stood defeated. The devil stepped back “Such a pity. Well, I suppose I can’t please everyone.” They both stood silently for a moment when Molaan raised an eyebrow and put a hand on Falk’s shoulder. “Come now, there is no time to waste. You have people to save, a kingdom to rebuild, witnesses to murder.” The devil looked directly at me and winked. I froze, he had seen me and I couldn’t move a muscle. “Witnesses!” Falk jumped to life again. “Just one, a wizard’s apprentice named Gaelin Marram. He knows Falk. He knows everything.” Panic covered Falk’s face, “But how?” Molaan shifted Falk’s back to me allowing the devil to keep both of us in his field of vision.

Pushing Ilsa down, I stood up, keeping one foot on Ilsa. I stared at Molaan ready to run the moment he pointed me out. The devil’s eyes burned with delight as his attention went back to Falk. “Promise to run one errand for me and I will take care of this loose end.” Falk looked at the devil in disgust, “No! No more deals. I will find this boy and kill him myself. I want nothing else from you.” Molaan shrugged and snapped his fingers. Lord Falk vanished with another obnoxious flash of light and smoke. Stepping forward Molaan bowed deeply to me and walked into the trees where he too vanished.

Magus Karrna warned me about the cunning of Baatzu. Molaan’s master used Falk to destroy Epirus and I carry this truth. Yet in the same stroke Falk was warned of me. To what end has Molaan orchestrated these events?

Ilsa pushed me off her and climbed on top of the stones. She was breathing heavily, nearly uncontrollably, and pacing. Throwing her arms out, fists clenched, Ilsa leaned down towards me. “Why did you stop me?!” Her face twisted with rage. I could see a small bead of blood forming on her throat where the dagger had pressed. I feared that the wound would only throw her into a larger tirade but, in her madness, either didn’t notice or didn’t care that I had threatened her.

Watching her rave thoughts of the risks I took to save her made me boil. “We didn’t come all this way just to throw our lives away!” Ilsa stood glaring at me still gasping for air while I climbed atop the boulder. Suddenly, what I wanted to tell her for the last two days came pouring out. “You wanted to know why this happened. It wasn’t the gods! It wasn’t your lack of faith! We are not being punished! That man is your answer!” I pointed to where Falk had been standing. “Why would you risk our lives like that?!”

Ilsa’s face softened. “You don’t understand.” Losing her balance she fell into me grasping my shirt to avoid falling. Sliding down to her bottom she crossed her legs and put her head in her hands. “My mother and I escaped the north gate just before the demons collapsed the gatehouse. People were being hunted down. Some were killed, others were drug away screaming. We were holding hands, running from the city when I was knocked down.”

I sat down in front of Ilsa. Reaching out she took my hand gripping it tightly, her anguished eyes shifted between me and the horizon but her voice remained strong. “I can’t remember what the beast looked like but I remember the sound. Its wings buzzed like a giant fly when it tried to carry me away. Many rough, spiny legs tucked me against its belly while I kicked and tried to push it away. I could hear the screams of my mother just before it dropped dead pinning me underneath. A knight…he impaled the demon with his lance and drug it off. Without hesitating he put my mother on his horse, with me behind, and yelled at us to ride. We did as he said. Looking back I could see him, sword drawn, meeting the oncoming demons. The first two fell to his blade but…soon I couldn’t see him through the mass of monsters on him.”

Ilsa bit her lip, closed her eyes tight, and shook her head slightly. “His horse was fast. Even with two riders. We could see the High Lord’s banner in the distance and rode towards it. Ahead of us was another rider, his horse was injured and falling behind. Closing quickly from behind was a jumble of roars and howls. My mother slowed to heal the animal with a spell when the rider…” The rage returned to her voice. “That man! Aldwin Falk! Raised his mace and hit her when she reached to help him. We fell backwards to the ground. Falk jumped to the knight’s warhorse and rode away.” Ilsa drove her fist into the top of her leg. She was shaking and digging her knuckle into her thigh as sweat dripped from her chin.

Ilsa struggled to speak, beginning and stopping several times. I hoped that she would stop confiding in me but she was needy. Ilsa was a lost child begging for help and I had been the passerby pretending not to notice. Ignoring her pain brought me no pleasure but I was terrified by the idea of being somehow responsible for her. I wanted her to keep her secrets but knew that she wasn’t going to stop. The unsettling truth was that she became my responsibility the moment I tried to save her.

Ilsa began rubbing her stomach and spoke with her head down. “I tried to get my mother to her feet but she was dazed. Suddenly I was wrenched from her side. Claws and teeth were ripping my clothes and skin. I cried for my mother but could only catch glimpses of her. They had pulled her robes off and tried to force her to watch but she kept her eyes clenched. I could feel my skin tear as something ice cold pushed inside of me. Another pried my mouth open but I bit down as hard as I could. It wailed and jumped around pulling me along. The others laughed and pinned me down. I saw my mother again, her eyes were cut open. Blood ran like tears down her face. Seeing her like that…” Ilsa paused, her voice breaking slightly. “I stopped fighting and pretended to be dead. A few more had their fill but were quickly distracted by the screams of a large group of captives nearby. The people had seen how prisoners were treated and were begging for mercy even before the demons started on them.”

Inhaling deeply Ilsa shuddered as she exhaled. Stirring anxiously, her eyes darted between me and her hands. “I crawled to my mother. She was lying face down on top of her robes. She wasn’t moving and her legs were broken and twisted to the side. I lay motionless next to her trying not to breathe. Whispering to her, I tugged at her robes sure she was just faking as I had done but she didn’t make a sound. Her clothes were soaked in blood but I remember wondering whose it was. With as much strength as I could muster I pulled at her robes again turned her over. There was a gaping hole where her face once was.” Ilsa’s voice broke and shook as she took several quick breaths.

Ilsa’s face hardened, her eyes, bloodshot and teary, bore into me as she rose to her feet. “He can’t get away with this.” Jumping down in between the boulders that sheltered us, Ilsa sat down, crossed her arms, and planted her feet against the rock wall.

Following her down, I sat in a corner giving a few feet of space between us. Ilsa’s head was turned slightly away but her eyes were fixed on me. I could sense the tension building and saw that she wore the same twisted face that wanted to plant my dagger into Falk. Taking a long pull from my flask the wine burned slightly as I drank. Looking back at Ilsa, I knew if she didn’t get her emotions under control we would eventually be found and the nightmare she endured would be relived again. “We can make him pay.” My words softened Ilsa’s face. Moving closer to her I began to whisper, worrying again about the amount of noise we had been making. “We can make him pay but we have to be smart. We need to stay hidden and most of all quiet.”

Ilsa laid down keeping her legs propped up against the wall. Lifting her head I slipped my satchel underneath. She was relaxed but showed no sign of hope, staring expressionless at the dusk sky. The first stars of evening flickered and a chorus of nocturnal insects were in full concert before she spoke. “What do we do? That piece of shit could be anywhere.” She spoke as if she was not accustomed to swearing but there was conviction in her voice.

I felt a strange sense of relief. Ilsa was finally focusing on something other than what the tanar’ri had done to her. “We won’t survive long in the wild without food or protection. We are less than a day’s walk from Stohl. My brother, Oren, is stationed there with a small garrison of Highborn. Once we get there we can tell Oren about Falk. He will know what to do.” Ilsa put her forearm over her eyes and didn’t say another word.

Given everything that had happened I had no idea if Oren was still in Stohl. He may have been mustered as soon as word spread of the attack but the thought of arriving in Stohl and finding the soldiers gone made me feel sick. They have to be there. We didn’t come this far for them not to be.

So much death for one man's desire

Adoraith: Echoes of Epirus Adoraith