The plains of Buxenus stretch out endlessly. It is a land of desert scrub, harsh, hot heat in the daytime and frigid cold at night.
The Harmonium patrols endlessly, looking for anything out of place. Wanderers are bored with suspicion, and sometimes they set traps for travelers — “honeypots” to attract wrongdoers who might need a little nudge to actually do wrong.
As the shadows grow long in the foothills and as the temperature drops, Valeria Janglemancer sees the thin spire of a cooking fire. It comes from a small, orderly camp — seemingly empty, though the signs of habitation are present. Meat cooking on the spit, a hide tent lean-to, a few odds and ends of a desert traveler.
Her tummy grumbles and the sound seems to echo through the hills.
She waits and watches, but no one comes. The meat — a small but plump hill-pig — threatens to burn on one side.
Valeria watches the underside of the pig bubble and snorts to herself. She gets up and walks down to the campfire, and then sits and rotates the spit.
The fire is warm. She keeps rotating the pig and digs into her backpack for a piece of hard tack.
She gnaws on it while she rotates the pig.
There’s a cracking of rocks — a few small ones tumble and slide away — and a part of the hill turns, stretches, and sleepily hurrrms awake.
It’s not a piece of the hill at all — it’s a creature. Impossibly tall, yet hunched over. Wisps of white hair peek out from its hood. It’s hands are bigger than Valeria’s head. His eyes are black points of night.
“Hurrrrrm,” he says, reaching out a long arm and grabbing hold of the spit. He takes a bite of the hill-pig. “Your snapping hard tack reminded me I was hungry,” he says.
His voice is like the growl of the urth, like something Valeria feels but does not remember.
“Pig?” He holds it out to her on the spit, juice running down its flank.
“Th-thank you. I hope I didn’t disturb your rest.”
Valeria takes a knife from her boot and cuts at the pig’s haunch. It burns her fingers a bit, but she takes a bite without waiting for it to cool.
“I’m Valeria. Janglemancer. I’m out here looking for something. How about you?”
“Looking for something? Hurrrrrm! Found something!” He raises the fire-roasted pig and his dark, deep-set eyes seem to twinkle. “A quest accomplished! Haw-haw!”
He finished the pig off in another quick two bites.
“Not really enough pig for two, he says, still chewing. “Not really enough for one, but…”
Valeria laughs, and digs deeper into her bag. “You can have some hardtack and some dried fruit, if you don’t mind chewing at it a while.”
She chews at the roast pork for a bit and looks up at the sky. “My friend teaks says that when I was baby, I used to look up at the stars, and try to catch them. Because there were stars in the sky. I wonder why there aren’t any stars here.”
“Have you ever seen a Lammasu?”
“Hurrrrrrrrrm. Lamma-who? Maybe on Seamus’s farm. Once upon a time. Pah!” He spits out the hard tack. “My teeth can’t take it. How do yours do it? They’re so … small.”
He sniffs the air and leans closer to Valeria.
“You smell like something familiar. You smell like home! Hurrrrrm.”
He shares a skin of wine with her — dandelion wine, from flowers he picked himself — and they talk through the night.
“No stars here? Hurrrrm. No. Look down! The stars are us.”
Valeria drifts off to sleep, head light from the sweet wine. She wakes up in the morning feeling more rested than she has since she last slept at home. And even then, she slept restlessly — wanting to get on the road, perhaps. This might have been the best sleep of her life!
But her companion from the night before is nowhere to be found. His lean-to is gone and his piles of baubles and belongings. Valeria is surprised that she slept through the noise he must have made as he gathered everything and packed it on his back.
Valeria travels on. After days and weeks she comes across what was once, perhaps, a village. Most of the buildings are burned out — some still smolder — and the Harmonium has claimed it for their own. The surviving villagers sit listlessly outside of their homes. The Harmonium have clearly requisitioned their food and belongings, in the name of the war for Nemausus. Some of the villagers are dead, corpses in the roads.
In the middle of town, barely fitting in a large, wooden cage on a cart, is Valeria’s new friend. He looks like he could burst through the cage if he flexed his long limbs. But he simply peers out between the bars as Valeria walks cautiously into town.
“Hurrrrrrrm,” he says. “Hill-pig.”
“Oy! Calls a Harmonium militiaman, hand on his sword hilt. “Who’re you? State yer business.”
Valeria stops in front of the cart, and then turns to soldier. "My name is Valeria Janglemancer. I am on a quest. What crime did the people of this village commit?”
“Obstruction’a supplies and unwillingness ta’ — ey! I axe th’ questions around ’ere, hey? What — is yer quest?”
The large creature in the cage arches an eyebrow and says, “Hurrrrrrm.”
“My quest?,” She says, looking around at the carnage that the militia have left in street. “I am…looking to reunite a friend with his companions.”
Valeria stares hard at the militia man. “Just what were these people unwilling to do, ‘Peacekeeper’?”
The Harmonium militiaman lets out a high whistle and several other of his order turn their attention to Valeria as well.
“Unwillingness to give up supplies fer th’ greater good, hey? Speakin’a — whatya got in yer bag? Food-wise.”
“You men are thieves,” Valeria says, eyeing the gathered militia men. She slips her ax from its place on her back and smashes the lock on the hermit’s cage.
She turns back to Harmonium soldiers, holding her ax low at her side. “Leave the food you’ve taken, and whatever medical supplies you can spare, and go. You have no right to harm these people.”
“Yer’a girl with no business here,” says the Harmonium man, loosening his sword in his scabbard. Others do the same. Two within Valeria’s vision nock arrows to bows. “Would ya break th’ law?”
The hermit peers from the cage as its door swings open. Otherwise he does not move.
“Would you, hurrrrrrm?” he asks.
Valeria lowers her head for a moment. Something insides of her, something deep and real, pushes her to do something for these people. She feels Ruat at her side, and seems to whisper The Law is the Law. Valeria is torn.
Hesitating, she turns to the Hermit. “I am a stranger here, this is true,” she says. "Tell me, friend, is this truly the law of this village, that these soldiers can come and take and kill at their pleasure?”
“If two want what one has, aye,” says the hermit. “They can take it. That is their law. But is it good? Hurrrrm.”
“What’s ’at?” says the Harmonium. “Who’re ya talkin’ at? Friend-who? Put down ’at axe!”
The Harmonium steps forward, past the cage, paying the hermit inside no mind whatsoever.
Ruat wavers. The Law Is… it whispers.
Valeria grits her teeth and tightens her grip on her ax. “The law is the law, certainly, but their law is not good, and it is not mine.”
She turns to the soldier again and says, "Leave these people and go, thief.”
The Harmonium smiles. “Awwww’right,” he says, drawing his sword.
Before it can entirely leave its sheath, he explodes in a shower of mud and dirt.
Behind him, a terribly scarred man steps from a patch of bushes, wielding a short cudgel.
The bowmen let out short, sharp huurrks! and fall in heaps, blood blossoming their tunics like flower petals. Valera can see a wee leprechaun, dressed in trousers and a vest, hopping from the thatched rooftops of the village.
The hermit flexes his lanky limbs and the cage shatters into toothpicks. Members of the Harmonium seem to see him for the very first time, but before they can turn their swords toward him he has picked up two by their heads and smashed them together, leaving a red gooey pulp in his palms.
“HurrrrrmHAW,” he laughs, wiping his palms off. “Good is bloody business,” he says to Valeria.
“One mustn’t take violence lightly,” says the burned man, knocking a charging Harmonium in his nose. There is a spurt of blood and the soldier falls.
“Ye dinna haeva fuhr o’er t’h Harm’o’um — kinna blid as a’ner’one aes!” says the little one, popping in and out from behind soldiers as if stepping from shadow to shadow, his tiny dagger stabbing each one in turn.
“… what?” says the hermit. “What on urth did you just say, Seamus?”
It is a bloodbath — within minutes the soldiers of the Harmonium are dead. The burned man and the little one clean their weapons of blood; the hermit stands before Valeria, a splattered, gory mess.
“Law can be deadly, if you break it,” says the hermit.
“Justice can be bloody,” says the burned man, “if you take it.”
“Venjae aes stickae, if’n yae main aet,” says the little one.
“I — I can’t understand him,” says the hermit. “I’m sorry Seamus, it’s just been too damn long.”
The surviving villagers reclaim their food, but they do not thank Valeria or the bloody trio. They are afraid the Harmonium will simply come back, and next time they will want food and revenge.
“What is right?” the hermit asks the girl. “What would be fair?”
“Right,” Valeria responds, “Would be making sure that the Harmonium cannot harm them.”
“Fair, though, that would just be to give them back what is theirs.”
She looks at the scarred man, careful to keep her eyes on his, and not stare at his scars.
“Thank you. I didn’t want to hurt those soldiers, but I couldn’t let them just kill the people of this village.”
Valeria walks to one of the villagers, a short woman with a gash down one arm. “May I treat this?” she asks?
While Valeria works, she looks at the Leprechaun. “My friend Teks once told me a story that my father told him, about one of your people. Teks told me that my father had been struck dumb by a playing card, and that the Leprechaun fixed it with a wish. Of course, that won’t happen for thousands of years. My Father isn’t even alive yet. But I always liked that story.”
The little one laughs.
“Thassa till wor’ taellin, la’,” he says. “Timmy, twassy, r’ joos play purr’buh. Aye lik’a!”
The hermit looks at the little one and blinks.
“Perhaps we shall all stay the night and share a meal,” says the burned man.
“The girl carries a delicious hard tack, hurrrrrm,” says the hermit. “Hurrrrrm, hurrm.”
In the morning, again, the hermit has moved on. The little one likewise is gone. The burned man stays to help the village heal and rebuild.
It is nearly a year later. Valeria pulls on Chow Chow’s reins when she notices the campfire and the small hill and the foo dog rears a bit, still unused to the bridal. She pats the thick roll of fur and fat at his neck to calm him.
The memory of the Rakasha’s sneer is still fresh in her mind, and her failure still stings. She could ride through the night; Teks was probably worried. But she could use company right now, she thinks. And this time she has more than hardtack to share.
When she rides into the small camp, though, there is no hermit. The hill is just a hill.
Valeria sits at the small fire, waiting for its tender to come back. Chow Chow sits next her, stone still. She looks up at the featureless sky.
The hermit does not appear before Valeria falls asleep at the fire.
In the morning, the campsite is undisturbed. But in the distance, across the plains, several large, black birds are circling something, flying round & round & round.
Valeria watches the birds while she breaks camp. When she is done, she mounts Chow Chow and turns the big Foo Dog towards the birds.
Chow Chow is slow to move at first. The Foo turns its head as it walk and says, “Black birds. Bad Omen.”
“Let’s just see what it is,” Valeria says." "It might need help.”
The birds are further away than they look because they are also bigger than they look. By the time Valeria and Chow Chow crest the rise and can see the shape ahead of them — at first it looks like bones and a box, stuck with a spear — they realize the birds flying overhead are probably larger than Valeria herself.
As they get closer they see that it’s actually a formian, impaled with a spear, stuck to the hard-packed ground. He is still alive — he is squirming and trying to crawl, but the spear has him held tight.
He grunts and moans and seems to look past Valeria. His eyes are blank. It is unclear how long he has been here like this.
Valeria slides down off of Chow Chow’s back and slips her water skin off of her belt. She goes to the formian and offers the water to it. When it does not respond, she strokes its head for a moment, and then stands and grips the spear. She pulls.
Immediately, Valeria is somewhere else…
She is wielding not a spear, but a trident — a forked, three-pronged weapon of the gladiators. She is in an arena, and her ears are filled with the roaring of a crowd — louder than anything she’s ever heard. The arena pit in which she stands is a bowl, and the stands go up and up and up around it.
She sees a flash of light and a battleaxe swings at her. Instinctively she dodges to the side, landing on her knees. Looking up, she sees —
Her friend, her mentor, a kind of father to her. He raises his battle axe as if to swing at her again, to cleave her in two.
“Would you strike down your friend, hurrrrrm? Could it be done? If the good called for it?”
It is a voice — a presence — from somewhere all around her.
The sun beats down. The sweat runs into her eyes. This is real.
Valria crouches under the ax, and looks down at her hands where she grips the trident. She tenses her muscles to spring up, eyes locked on the soft joint where Teks’ thorax meets his abdomen; a spot Teks showed her himself, when they trained.
She lets the head of the trident dip to the side. “I could,” she says. “If the good called for it. But this is neither right, nor fair. There is a creature out there on the plains that needs help, and you took me from him.”
And then she waits, watching Teks, to see if the ax blow will fall.
Teks chitters something at her, and though she knows a few words of his kreen-language, she cannot make out what this phrase is — something like — the beginning. This is what begins? It doesn’t make sense.
He swings the axe.
Valeria rolls forward at the last moment, waiting to feel the ax bite and hoping she is fast enough. She aims her roll under Teks’ legs—a trick that she learned after months of training against the huge Thri-Kreen.
Teks reaches down with one of his other arms, with a deftness he has never shown since Valeria has known him. He grabs her leg and keeps her from escaping.
The ax falls and she feels its cold bite in her chest.
But the slashing blade seems to … hold. That cold bite stings, and it feels like it is tearing down her front, and when Valeria tries to breathe in there is only a gurgle of blood and air where her lungs once were.
But then the next blow doesn’t come. She is not beheaded, as Teks would have surely done.
She opens her eyes and, again, she is somewhere else.
Or rather, she is nowhere else.
She is nothing. She is watching something she did not exist yet to see.
Two mighty figures stand in a crack in the urth itself, engaged in battle. One is mighty half-ogre, with mighty limbs, raven black hair, shining eyes, and a terrible trident in his hand. The other is a horrible thing, once a man but now a creature beyond life, a one-eyed, skull-faced lich wielding a terrible black rod. A yellow mist swirls around them and a raging storm of chaos erupts overhead.
“You were my friend!” yells the ogre.
“There is only the quest!” yell the lich.
They parry and strike at one another, neither landing a full blow.
“I could have helped you!” yells the ogre. “We could have found a way — a good way — together!”
“You were too stupid!” yells the lich. “You couldn’t see that you were the traitor to the dream! There is no good, no evil — there is law, and disorder — and one strangles while the other breathes free!”
“Don’t do it!” calls the ogre.
“Don’t stop me!” call the lich.
They both rear back their weapons. The storm rages around them. There are other voices without — calling for them to stop, to remember who they are to one another; to strike, to ignore who they once once and do what must be done.
Edrick swivels, twists, and thrusts his trident forward. Nemonad stabs forward with his inky black rod.
They strike one another in an cataclysmic flash.
The storm swirls.
Edrick Half-Ogre and Nemonad, the Wolf of Arcworth are gone. Where they stood there is now a human — the burned man, she has seen him before — and elf — impossibly tall and thin with long, silver hair down his back, someone she has never seen before — they join hands and chant an incantation.
The storm swirls.
The trident is gone and the dark, black rod is broken. It is a Rod of 7 Parts, and it is spread to the far corners of the urth.
The storm swirls.
Valeria is back in the desert. She lays on her back on the hard-packed ground. She is breathing heavily. There is no ax in her chest and no visible scar there, yet she can feel that it was real. Reaching under her tunic she can feel a line that goes down her chest, between her breasts, where the skin is smooth and without feeling.
Chow Chow crouches to one side of her. To the other, the hermit.
He is old again.
“Hurrrrrm,” he says.
He is Edrick, and has been from the start.
He picks at the ground with one long finger.
“I miss my friend,” he says.
Valeria feels the urge to prostrate herself, and also the urge to go to Edrick and hold him like a child. She does something of both, walking over to him and kneeling down to touch his hand.
“My Lord,” she says, "this creature, the Formian, it needs our help.”
Edrick reaches out the finger held by Valeria. He points to the spear thrust through the formian — not a spear at all, in fact. Valeria recognizes it as the trident she held in the arena, and the trident Edrick held versus the Wolf.
“Take it, though it’s no healing salve. It be a — hurrrm. It be a weapon of death. Death to evil, killed in my name. And if evil be your friends or your family or a formian who needs help? If you wield my weapon, you be a dealer of death.”
Valeria grips the trident a gain, and this time she is not transported. Intsead her hands tingle. She can feel the evil in the Formian. It is a deep and settled evil, the evil of poisoners eaters of ant-flesh. She pulls the trident out, and then stabs down again, piercing the Formian’s head.
When she is done cleaning the Trident, Valeria sits next to Edrick in the dirt.
“I was hoping to use this, instead,” she says, pulling Ruat from her belt. “It was his?”
“Hurrrrm,” says Edrick, resting his head in his hand. “The rod can be a tool. But the trident is the way. When it was mine I called it — hurrrrm. No. That doesn’t matter anymore. What will you call it?”
Valeria thinks it over for a moment. “After he turned on you, they called him The Wolf of Arcworth? How about ‘Wolfsbane’?”
“Hurrrrm. When it was time to fight, I did fight. When Nemo stood against me, I did kill him to save the urth. What will you do when one of your own stands against you?”
Edrick stands and towers over Valeria. His shadow falls over her.
“He can’t be allowed back. He needs to be to rest for all time. Will you forsake all other quests to complete this one? Will you keep the rod from being put back together in the name of the Wolf? Will be the Knight of Zephyrus?”
Valeria shudders a bit as Edrick looms over her. The strange, kind hermit is gone, replaced by something huge and powerful. “I will,” she says.
This time, she really kneels, with her head bowed.
The shadow deepens, grows colder. When Valeria raises her head, Edrick is nowhere to be seen. The shadow over her is a from a mountain, tall and wide, snow-capped and brown.
She rises as a Paladin of Edrick, the Knight of Zephyrus. The First of Her Order.