Hross indeed had to jog to keep up with Bevulf’s long, swift strides. So much so that he kenned little of the sights on the way to Skark’s house. As with Eirvit, who was making much of the same trip just behind him, however, he was aware of the scent of spoiled fish that gave way to a fresher breeze as they neared the rope bridge to Deadeye Rock. Then, passing it, he became aware of another smell, something quite strong but fairly pleasant.
He learned, as soon as Bevulf had stopped in front of a door to a very wide house built right up against the lake water, that what he had been smelling was coming from here. It reminded him of the smell of roasted yams and nutmeg. He knew he had smelled it in his youth and should know the name of it, and he used half of his mind to begin revisiting in memory the Windhaven teahouse of his childhood. The other half of his mind attended to Bevulf, to the bleeding and the nasty red raw welts from the weedwhip blow still on the back of Bevulf’s neck. Hross had been watching this during his entire run.
“You’re wounded,” Hross said, breathing heavily, reaching out an arm to stop Bevulf from pounding on the door. Hross fancied he could see herbal vapors seeping out from the cracks around the door.
“Yeah?” Bevulf said. Hross noticed, in contrast to himself, that Bevulf didn’t seem winded at all. “You got some healing for me?”
Hross hesitated. Did he? His memory had him waking in bed, his lungs burning with smoke inhalation, uneasy with the sense that someone was coming for him.
But what he had done seemed to have been the same thing he had done to his enemies, the enemies who had burned down his house and killed… Well, the heavenly fire hadn’t exactly “healed” them as it had himself.
He narrowed his eyes and looked carefully at Bevulf’s ruddy, rugged face. Bevulf’s eyes narrowed. His brow rose, first in puzzlement, then in consternation. Hross wondered what effect his powers might have on this barbarian? “I don’t know,” he decided. “You want to try it?”
“What do you mean, you ‘don’t know’? What kind of a sorcerer are you?”
Hross shrugged. “I mean I don’t know. It might hurt you. It might heal you.”
Bevulf showed an eye-tooth, then put the bulk of his shoulder between Hross and the door, swiftly pounding three times on the flimsy wood. Hross took a step back.
Bevulf waited six beats or so. “Skark!” he shouted. “You home?” Six more beats. Bevulf raised his fist to knock again.
Abruptly a wooden latch clicked on the other side of the door. The door began to open.
Before it was fully open, streams of woodsmoke, a double wallop of herbal smell, flowed out and around it. Arrowroot, Hross finally realized. The cleric was brewing Arrowroot tea, and in very potent amounts, by the smell of it. It was a plant sacred to Erastil because its leaves, tipped with red in the fall, looked just like arrowheads—even down to the illusion of flint strikes off their gleaming surfaces. The leaves were mildly poisonous and, at their worst, induced vomiting. But the roots, which looked even more than the leaves like flint arrowheads, made a fine tea, good for digestion. And, it was rumored, with the right prayers to Erastil contained even greater virtues.
The face that peered around the edge of the door was wrinkled and as soft and as pale as some kinds of fungus. Its blue eyes were watery, perhaps blind, but they peered up at Bevulf. Strands of wet-looking gray hair streamed down either side of a mostly bald head.
Bevulf stepped away from this picture of poor health. “Skark?”
“Yes?” said the man. He opened the door further. Hross saw a hunched man in plain, homespun robes. With some imagination, Hross determined that it indeed was the dress of a cleric, though the man wore no apparent holy symbol. “I am he,” Skark continued. “Who are you?”
Hross detected the note of malice in Bevulf’s reply. “I am Bevulf,” he said. After a beat, he emphasized two more syllables. “Ulfson.”
Hross saw confusion on Skark’s face, and he heard Bevulf try again, the note of malice increasing. But this time he gave his surname as “Hlokkson.”
And this time Hross thought he saw recognition in those watery eyes. And was there also fear? Abruptly the cleric stepped back into the smoke, but he opened the door wide. “Oh, yes,” Skark was saying. “Bevulf Hlokkson. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. Thank you for this visit.” He stepped further into a smoky interior lit only by the red flames in a nearby hearth. “Come in. Come in. Do either of you care for some tea? It’s arrowroot.”
Hross shuddered as he followed Bevulf beneath the lintel. The interior was thick with smoke, the scent of the woodsmoke almost threatening to overcome the scent of the arrowroot. The haze made it difficult to breathe and to pick out the objects in the room with much clarity. The fire in the hearth to the left cast the interior into a murky glow. A few simple wooden chairs rested near here. The room was vast, and it appeared that another—cold—hearth was just out of the smoke fumes on the far right. This house was large and wide, but just how much so? Was it some kind of transformed workbuilding? Had fisher-folk sat in here to warm up on winters, or had it been for some other purpose?
“You need to clean your flue,” Bevulf said.
“I know, I know,” croaked Skark, “but I’m such an old man. It’s a bit more work than these old bones can handle.”
“It shouldn’t be work for you,” Bevulf retorted. “I’m sure anyone would be willing to assist an aged holy man such as yourself.”
Skark was now at the fire. A teapot sat on a grate near the flames. “Tea?” Skark asked again. Through the murk, Hross descried a small table just outside the inglenook. A few modest cups, each hardly larger than a thimble, without handles, were on it.
Hross hadn’t shut the door behind him, and he wouldn’t shut it now—not only because it might help, in some small way, as egress for the stifling smoke, but also because he felt a sudden yearning for its light, for its clean, bright sunlight, that wavered in the smoke fumes behind him.
Hross’s eyes were adjusting to the gloom. He noticed other round tables and chairs in this great room, but there was little more to be offered in the form of comfort—unless one counted the tea things by the fire. There were four doors, one in the far left hand side of the right wall, one mirroring it on the opposite wall, and two on the wall directly opposite Hross, directly across from the open main door. The only decoration appeared to be a wooden holy symbol on the chimney above the fire. It was a crude representation of Erastil, cut in the manner in which a child might understand artistic proportion, all on a plane, the arms bent at the elbows but clearly flush with the torso at an unnatural angle. A bow was in one arm, a quiver of arrows in the other. As Erastil frequently was represented, his head was that of a deer with spreading antlers.
Hross looked at the figure again. For a moment, through the wavering smokescreen, that deer head had looked less like a deer and more like a tentacled monster. Hross blinked his watering eyes.
No, it was Erastil with his usual deer head, but still Hross wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t seem something deeper, something truer, something just on the other side of the veil of reality. He focused his gaze on Skark.
In Hross’s blearing gaze, the cleric changed. Skark kept his form, more or less, but he suddenly looked somehow even more unhealthy. His skin yellowed like parchment. Parts of it peeled away, revealing tendons in his jaw, dry gray matter in his cheeks. The wisps of white hairs decreased. His eyes now didn’t look merely blue and watery but dead, the eyes of a corpse, unseeing and yet impossibly aware of Hross. And looking directly at him. The arm that now held forth the steaming cup of tea quite clearly was bone thin under that sleeve. Abruptly Hross realized what had smelled so off about the tea and the wood smoke. Underneath it all was a charnel stench. He realized that both the smoke and the thick tea had been a ruse, all along, to cover this scent as best Skark might.
Hross’s eyes must have widened in terror, but he saw no answering revelation in his host’s dead eyes. “Bevulf,” Hross warned, his voice rising sharply.
The recognition Hross sought appeared suddenly in Bevulf’s wet eyes, as well. Bevulf’s held not only fear and surprise, though, but also anger and hatred. “Fiend!” the warrior shouted, unsheathing his greatsword, “what have you done!”
The monster gave up the ruse. With surprising speed, he leaped at Bevulf, clumsily tossing the hot tea at the warrior as he attempted to make good on slashing him with the long, diseased-looking claws Hross now saw on the ends of the creature’s fingers. Alarmingly, as Bevulf attempted to get his greatsword up in front of him, the creature bypassed Bevulf’s leathers entirely by scratching him full across the face. The charnel smell suddenly seemed yet stronger, and Hross winced at the contagions that certainly must be all over those rotting fingernails and flesh.
Hross had only a moment in which to decide—heal Bevulf, and he wasn’t even sure yet if that would work, or harm the undead monster, and he was fairly certain that that would work. He showed forth his palm and opened himself to the power within himself, the power that opened out into some other plane. A heat rose in the depths of Hross’s guts, one that tingled outward and along his spine and then seemed to fill his whole body so that he felt like he must be bursting with radiance. His every hair stood on end. Then this radiance burst from his palm as bright, white, spectral burning flames blasting before him. The energy was so powerful that Hross trembled under its influence. He worked at steadying and focusing his hand at his target.
And missed. His eyes were bleary from the smoke, and it was difficult to tell through the haze, but it appeared that the radiant flames shimmered right past the fiend and struck the wall on the opposite side of the room.
But Bevulf’s sword was out, and in Hross’s holy fire the barbarian’s eyes blazed with frenzied hate and rage. Bevulf swung that two-handed sword with all his might, and the power of that blow broke off one arm and one collarbone.
But the monster still had another clawed hand, and, hissing, he slashed again at Bevulf, this time getting fouled in the warrior’s leathers.
Hross considered, after his failed shot, of giving it up, of leaving it to Bevulf to dismember this fiend, since the barbarian had made good work of it already. But Hross remembered the charred back of a scalp, one that once had been covered in golden hair, and again he willed the power into his hand.
This time he released the flame too early, and it flickered harmlessly across the plank floor between him and his target.
In the close quarters of the combat, Bevulf held his greatsword lengthwise across his body, thrust forward, and drew the blade across the creature’s ribs.
The monster that once had been Skark slashed with its remaining arm. But the movement of its blow was a hasty sketch in the smoke, and Hross couldn’t determine the result of the blow. He summoned the flame to his hand again, and this time, though it was hard to judge in the smoke and brilliance of his discharge, he thought he had connected with the fiend. The creature’s desiccated robe burst into flame, releasing such a stench of oily black smoke that Hross’s sight lost both combatants in the nimbus.
Closing his mouth, refusing to draw breath through his nostrils, Hross squinted and waited, again readying the power in his palm—it was becoming easier now. Not until this day had he realized the extent of this ability. But he sensed that there was a limit to it. He felt, somehow, that this place inside him whence this power arose was connected to some kind of mystical cistern, one that filled up with supernatural condensation daily, and that he could draw from this reservoir only so many times before it would empty and he would have to wait for a new supply.
It took mere moments for the undead cleric’s garments to burn away, and when the smoke cleared Hross descried the creature in a flaming bundle on the floor, its dismembered head some distance away.
Bevulf also lay on the floor.
Hross held his hand awkwardly in front of his body, as if his hand were covered in some kind of filth that he didn’t want to risk accidentally brushing on anything else. Rather, it was humming with this celestial energy, and he had to decide soon to let it loose into the air or risk channeling it into Bevulf’s unconscious form.
Crossing the floor swiftly and kneeling, Hross studied the barbarian’s face. The visage seemed unnaturally peaceful in sleep, and Hross recalled how eager the warrior had been to suspect the ancient cleric of some misdeed. Barbarian’s intuition, it must have been, and the Ulfen had been vindicated in his belief. And perhaps now, even unconscious, Bevulf felt deeply satisfied in the Blackraven’s part in the slaying of the abomination.
The barbarian’s expression became more and more visible in brilliant light. Hross’s hand had become an incandescent ball of streaming, wispy flame. In that light, too, moving his gaze away from his fallen companion’s face, Hross saw blood. It leaked out of a vicious rent in Bevulf’s leathers at his side and puddled on the floor.
Bevulf’s repose was about to become the everlasting rest of death.
Hross’s power had wreaked destruction upon his foe. Weeks before, however, it had been soothing when applied to his own smoke-scarred lungs.
Did the power work in this way on himself alone? Might it do the same to his friends?
Hross never had prayed before. Now he whispered the name “Erastil” and placed his shining hand on the fallen warrior’s chest.