A Promise Made

by Zirilian in Dark Ages

They walked unmolested through Astrid. From her earliest memories of the time she thought that odd. Hadn’t the Kobolds and Goblins always attacked intruders? Still, of course, they had to avoid the carefully-laid traps that the Kobolds fashioned, but were otherwise not threatened. Yet even as the little group drew nearer to the center of the Pentagram known as Astrid, the beasts within gave them a wide berth.

As time passed, they came ever closer to the center of Astrid. She could feel the evil convening there, as though at some Dark meeting. What was happening? she remembered thinking. Why are we here, and not attacked? And finally, the Center came. Though in itself it was nothing special, the Center of Astrid felt horrible. Evil was nearly a tangible force on these roads, congregating and flowing around the center, the Vortex of All.

And the wizard, dressed completely in black, led her up to the center. He bade her stand there. With no warning, a swirl of Darkness appeared in front of her. Just as suddenly, the wind flew from her lungs, and she collapsed to the ground. She looked up painfully at the wizard, who stood beside her looking down. He gave her an evil grin that sliced through her soul as a knife through butter.

And he spoke in an even tone, that seemed to exude evil despite the smooth sound. "Welcome to Astrid," and then he said her name, but she could not remember it. The wizard gave a terrible chuckle, one that only a Servant of Evil could emit, and pulled a scroll from somewhere deep within the folds of his clothing. "Caroun will thank me for this sacrifice." Then he invoked the arcane magicks inscribed upon the wrinkled parchment, and, laughing, disappeared into thin air.

I was making my rounds, surveillance of Astrid. Suddenly I heard a terrible scream. Another child! I raced toward the sound. I’d let too many slip through my fingers, I’d not let this one die! I dashed through the bushes, heading towards the sound. The center! I was sure it would be too late. But I could not simply abandon them!

I made it to the center just as a few bits of light from someone leaving disappeared, and a Dark Vortex appeared in front of the child. It was a girl, she was dressed only in the peasant clothes she must’ve left mundanity in. She was on the ground, breathing painfully, and something stood over her. A wolf!

The beast looked at her, sniffed her, and then, as I watched in horror, lifted its paw and put three bloody slash marks across her cheek. The child screamed again, in both pain and fear, and it was a terrible sound.

The wolf looked up at me, seeming to see me for the first time. Its beady white eyes, pupiless, locked with mine, and his eyes burned somehow, radiating something Dark. Then the wolf looked to the small circle of Kobolds and Goblins about it, and opened its mouth. And to my great surprise, it spoke, in a rough, gravely voice that seemed to rumble across Astrid.

"Yessss" it hissed. "This one ssshall make a goood sssacrficcce." As though by some unspoken command, the Goblins moved behind the child, two of them guarding her from intruders--namely, me. Then I realized who and what I now looked at. Dear Gods! Caroun! He was as Kalliope the mundane had told me. A wolf’s body...but it was literally sheep’s clothing. As I watched, the body twisted and warped and turned into a manlike shape, Caroun Himself.

He looked terrible. He stood tall, and radiated Evil. His baleful eyes, though aisling, pierced mine with an unspeakable glare, and his hands, limber, attached to sinewy arms that were handsome all the same. And he spoke, and this time it was not forced out through the vocal cords of an animal not made to talk, it was in the hard aisling voice of a fully-formed person.

"I will reward my Servant greatly for this. Whom hath brought you here?"

The girl cowered under his gaze. "I said to tell me who brought you here!" he thundered. At the sound of his voice, the girl screamed again. "I said tell me," he said, his voice getting dangerously low, now speaking meticulously, as though choosing every word carefully. "Or I will not sacrifice you. I will have you ripped apart, limb by limb, for my dinner entertainment."

The girl finally found her voice, and it came out in a trembling whisper. "A...a...a wizard.....I...I...don’t know his name." Caroun looked down for a moment, and I felt quite sure he would kill her right then and there. Then he gave a semi-satisfied nod, and began a chant.

"Den sherra, ve tek bahisha..." I listened no longer. I dashed forward with a war cry on my lips and plunged my sword into the heart of the nearest Goblin guarding the child. Caroun looked up suddenly, his ancient invocation broken, and probably not for the first time either. He shouted an arcane profanity at me as I wrested my sword from the chest of the Goblin I’d just slain.

The second of the Goblins gasped one of the magicks of aosda, and suddenly a wall of water washed across me, throwing me backwards to land hard on my back. I shouted out in pain, and Caroun grinned evilly at me. "Die, aisling," he said to me, and I felt that it might soon be true.

Shaking off the shock from the sal spell, I jumped to my feet and slashed my sword across the next Goblin. He, however, would not fall as easily as had his companion, and surprise was no longer my advantage. I slashed again, and the Goblin made a punch at me. He connected square in my chest, and I thought I might have felt something crack.

I pushed my sword once again at the Goblin, and though it dodged, it didn’t do so enough to avoid effect. I sliced off its hand messily, and the claw still reflexively clutched at the air in front of it. The goblin howled in pain, and brought the arm up, grabbing it with its other hand as though it could press out the pain.

I took this moment and drove my sword into the goblin’s neck, twisting it around until a hole the size of my fist had opened in it. The Goblin gave one final gurgle, a death knell, and then collapsed to the ground by its companion. Caroun looked up, obviously surprised and startled that a mere aisling had defeated his followers.

Then the ancient sorcerer regained his composure. I rushed forward, towards the child. Caroun cackled, "You will never defeat me, aisling." I dashed forward and grabbed up the child. She fit into my arms, and with a free hand I pulled from my jupe a scroll, like those I always carried with me. I opened it and recited the words, looking steadily at Caroun the whole while.

Whence the sorcerer realized what I was doing, he entered a frenzy. "Foolish aisling! You’ll never escape me! You may run now, but I will yet have both your souls!" He continued his ancient curses and archaic profanities as both the girl and I disappeared from his sight.

The two of us, Star and I, sat at the Mileth tavern. I didn’t drink, but we needed a spot to talk, and the tavern was fairly deserted at this time of day. Star ordered a glass of wine from the barkeep, and then turned to me. "You look troubled, Zirilian. What is it?" I turned to her and met her gaze.

"I was thinking."

"But thinking never troubled you before. What was it you were thinking of?"

I sighed, wondering if I should tell her. I realized then there was no tactful way to keep her from this, and running from the past would help neither of us. "I was thinking...of the day I found you. In Astrid." Though she showed nothing outwardly, I saw a ripple of fear pass through her eyes.

"I know...that there are others," I continued. "Other children there. Caroun....keeps them...for the Sacrifice."

If I expected a gasp or some such reaction from Star, I was sorely disappointed. She did nothing but nod and say, "Aye. I know."

"I know," I went on, "that his servants bring him these children. That some survive a few days there. That I might be able to rescue another the way I rescued you."

Star looked at me. "Aye," she said. "And I am coming with you."

I started at this. "You cannot," I protested.

"I am."

"But you will die!"

"So would you!"

"You are alive now, are you not?"

"Zirilian, Astrid is a death trap and you bloody well know it!"

"All the more reason I cannot allow you to come!"

Suddenly, the fire seemed to drain out of both of us. "Zirilian, if you die, I could not live by myself. A half cannot be one without the other half."

"But what of myself?" I asked. "You are the Half of me. What if you were to die and I to live?"

"Then I will have died in the liberation of others. I owe you kataka, Zirilian, life debt. I am coming with you."

I looked into Star’s eyes, locked gazes, and I saw the blue flame that leapt within those ice blue eyes. They were not desolate eyes, they were more alive than most aislings I knew. They were decisive, just as was their owner. And I knew when she had set her mind on something like this, there was next to nothing I could do to change it.

I sighed slightly, and relented. "You can come. But be careful. I’ll not have you die while I’m here."

The two of us walked through the quiet serendipity of Undine. Whether it was peace by true love of fellow man, or simply a peace imposed by Loures’ disarmament proclamation and constant guards, I could not tell. Nor, at that particular point, did I care. Undine seemed a cover. A drape. It hid Astrid and what rested within.

We came to the edge of the province, and the air shimmered slightly in front of us. We stepped through to Astrid.

Astrid was an ugly place. The ground was littered with the possessions of aislings lost in the battle against Caroun. We could hear rustles in the bushes, and I knew there must be kobold spies looking to report of us to Caroun. Even at this distance from the center, the evil was a tangible entity. It flowed into every niche, filling us with fear. The both of us tried not to let it overtake us, lest we lose our minds to the horror of Astrid.

We journeyed more or less unmolested toward the center, as though Caroun had purposely cleared the way for us. Suddenly, a wolf sprang from the bushes. The first thought to flash through my mind was that this must be one of the wild ones, not the hidden warlocks. It was not under Caroun’s control. There was no second thought, as my mind and body gave to the divine influence of Ceannlaidir, and He gripped my body and made my movements fluid, as I dropped into stance for the fight.

Immediately following falling into a fighting position, I spun, bringing my sword around, the blunt side smashing into the wolf’s belly. It gave a howl and jumped back to its feet, and I was reminded of my battle with the Goblins deochs ago.

I took another slice at the beast, my sword eating flesh and leaving gash after gash in the wolf’s body. Star ran forward, and, calling on her training as a rouge and the swiftness of Fioschad, flung her soori dagger into the wolf’s shoulder. She took out a surigam she kept hidden in her garments, and flung it.

The throwing star whirled towards its target, whistling as it sliced the air in front of it. I ran to the wolf’s other side and chopped, effectively drawing its attention and presenting its broad side to the surigam.

The tiny metal star ripped through the wolf’s flesh, and it howled once more. It leapt at its assailant, clawing Star again and again. I brought my sword down upon it, taking huge chunks of flesh from its back and haunches. Then, it delivered a final blow. It bit Star in the neck, and before it could finish her off, I brought my sword down on its own neck. The head sheared off messily, spraying blood as the jaws snapped a few times, grabbing at invisible prey.

I looked at Star, and knew she would die. She curled up, just as I had found her the day she was to be Sacrificed. I bent down over her, and looked into her eyes once more. The fire was being extinguished, I could see it. She looked up at me expectantly for a moment, as though she thought I could bring her back. Then the hope left her face as the truth of her fate settled in on her.

She looked up again, and whispered to me, and I knew it must have been a great pain for her. "Zirilian," she choked. "Save...the others."

I looked down at her lovingly, and I knew I could do no less. "I promise," I whispered back. She looked at me one last time, and the wisps of a smile drifted across her face. "Goodbye, Zirilian....goodbye."

And with that, the fire died forever. She had owed me kataka. She had paid. Now I stood up from her-still warm corpse and looked deeper into Astrid, obscured by a mist of evil. And as I did so, an ancient phrase drifted through my mind.

A promise made...