Reflections on Steel and Stealth

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Reflections on Steel and Stealth

Post by Erulisse » Wed Sep 13, 2023 2:27 am

Another vignette from Erulisse's Childhood, in which she learns that ABS is where it is at. Canonically this takes place before The Gift's of the Sea.

**TRIGGER WARNING** This story contains references to child abuse and neglect. Although nothing is explicitly shown in the story it might be upsetting if this is a sensitive topic.

As always I welcome any feedback.

The house was nestled in the roots of an ancient tamarind tree. This was very acceptable to Erulisse, as she was partial to the sour seed pods the tree dropped in late summer, even if they gave her a belly ache when she ate too many. The house itself was constructed of panels of pandmas palm leaves, woven tightly together over frames of bamboo tied with cast off twine and pieces of fishing net. She hadn’t told any of the grown ups about the house, preferring not to risk their disapproval. There was also the matter of the treasure, and the fact that her tree was located close to the old ruins that the wisdom said made people sick. The wisdom said a lot of things like that. Erulisse didn’t think she was really very wise but as voicing this opinion had led to more than one thrashing she had learned to keep it to herself.

The interior of the house was cozy and neat. Erulisse had spent hours hollowing out the soil around the roots to create a space large enough for her to sit or curl up, though the latter was increasingly difficult due to recent growth spurts that seemed to leave her all knobbly knees and elbows. Small shelves had been carved into the earth on which sat dozens of poppets fashioned from bundled grass and millet stalks. The more ambitious attempts had eyes made of shells or bits of sea glass. Her favorite poppet, creatively named Poppy, had a crude dress made of cast off canvas. Other shelves had broken pots or old jars filled with odds and ends, dried mulberries, bougainville blossoms, promising shells, old nails and a few bobbins of thread. None of these things compared to the treasure. Erulisse kept that in a special place, a small cubby dug into the back wall of her little house, lined with planks scavenged from the wreckage which washed ashore in the bay by the village. Inside the makeshift safe was a leather wrapped bundle. Erullise reached in and withdrew it, carefully unwrapping the parcel to reveal her treasure. The book had been old when Erulisse had stolen it from the peddler, its pages battered and the ink faded. A few flecks of guilt still clung to the threadbare cloth cover proclaiming it ‘The Travels of Jain Farstrider’ though more by implication than by the completeness of the script. That she could read at all was remarkable, her uncle Walden had taught her the basics one winter when the storms had come early and trapped him in the village. According to him, he had learned while he was aboard a trader from somewhere called Illian, and he had passed the knowledge on to her during dreary rainy days huddled around the fireplace. She opened the book carefully, removing the pressed flower she used for a bookmark. She got comfortable, squirming into her little nest of old sail cloth and cast off rags, as happy as she ever was.

“Ok Poppy,” she piped, “when last we left Jain…”

The patter of rain on the leaves woke her. For a moment she lay supine, the comforting weight of the book in her lap, then came fully awake with a start. It was late afternoon, nearly nightfall. It would take her most of an hour to get back to the village and her chances of getting a thrashing at the hands of her drunken father would be better even than usual and that was assuming the wisdom didn’t get involved.

“Poppy, how could you let me fall asleep,” Erulisse accused. The poppet, unwilling to incriminate herself, remained silent. With careful haste she re-wrapped and stored her book. A beating was too commonplace to remark upon, but Jain Farstrider was forever.

The Wind promised a savage storm, the kind that drove fresh treasures up onto the beaches in the late summer. The Wind had become increasingly forthright over the last few months, which struck Erulisse as only proper, as she had always been willing to entrust the Wind with her own secrets. Even so she couldn’t help but wish the Wind had woken her so she wouldn’t be soaked to her skin before she got halfway home. Climbing out of her house and up over the roots of the old tamarind Erulisse gazed out over the bay. Her tree was on the top of one of the small hills that formed the eastern arm of Wrecker’s Bay and commanded an impressive view. The rocky hillside fell away, covered with thorny bushes and rose hip vines, until it reached the jagged cliffs. To the southard the cliffs slumped into the bay, stubbornly giving way to the shale beach which Erulisse hunted for shells and sea glass. She was too far up the coast to see the village, though she thought she could make out the smudge of smoke from cookfires on the distant horizon. The sea beyond was wild, whipped to whitecaps by the coming storm which lowered and crackled on the horizon. Erulisse felt the peculiar sense of excited anticipation that always preceded storms, she could feel the tingle of lightning in her marrow, taste the cracks of thunder at the base of her teeth. For a moment she stood, untidy hair whipping in the wind, the patter of warm raindrops on her face. It might be worth a beating to be out in a storm like this.

Clambering up over the roots of the tamarind tree, Erulisse cast a glance back over her shoulder. The land beyond was rugged, rocky hills rising from the coast and falling into forests of teak, chir pine, and sandalwood from which other hills occasionally reared. There were ruins in the forest, though everyone said they were cursed and that none who went there survived. Naturally Erulisse had been planning an expedition for some time, it had been the guiding principle that had led her to her tamarind tree. A stepping stone along the path. The trouble was that to reach the alleged ruins, and have time to explore, would take more than a day. She doubted her father, addled on apple brandy on his best day, would bother to send out searchers but the beating she would get on her return would be one for the ages. She had intended merely to scan the distant forests for the promise of adventure but to her surprise she saw a light. A real light, not the reflection of the fading sun of rain damp foliage, but a flame, perhaps a torch or a campfire. Frowning, she considered her situation, she ought to be getting home, her grumbling stomach reminding her that it had been a long time since the cold porridge she had eaten at breakfast. She reached into the pocket of her homespun dress and produced a crust of stale bread, sticking it in her mouth and chewing determinedly. She cast a reproachful look up at the tamarind, as its pale brown pods refused to ripen under her scrutiny. It might take her a half hour to investigate the light. That was unlikely to alter the outcome when she got home and she had to weigh it against the chance of adventure. She scoffed inwardly at her own timidity. Would Jain Farstrider hesitate to take such a risk?!

As it chanced, it took her closer to an hour. The storm hadn’t yet broken in earnest but warm rain pattered down onto the forest canopy in a staccato rhythm. Once she came down the hillside she had lost sight of the distant flame and was forced to try to keep her bearings by looking back at the hill. Every step had the wonderful thrill of the unknown, a place she had never been before, alive with possibility. The air was redolent with the scent of rain, leaf mold, and unfamiliar flowers. Somehow it was greener up close, verdant and lush the way the scrubby soil of the coast never quite managed. She even saw a few hives of bees, which promised a chance to get some honey, just as soon as she figured out how to collect it without being stung too badly. So absorbed was she in these concerns, that when she finally reached her goal, she all but stumbled upon it. It turned out to be a camp fire, built in the rocky expanse of a dry stream bed. Two people, a man and a woman, were arguing about something, though Erulisse remained too far away to hear. They were dressed in what, to her at least, seemed like finery. The man wore a suit of mail, only slightly marked with rust and dirt, and a tabard of red and black silk. His hair was a very fine gold which Erulisse had never seen before and his face was dominated by a beak of a nose that had been broken so many times it healed crooked. The woman was a stark contrast, lithe and slender where her companion was stocky, swathed in a cloak of dark velvet and sable that seemed to draw her into the rainy twilight, with raven dark hair and striking coppery skin. Erulisse thought she looked very beautiful. Both were armed, the man with a well used battle axe and the woman with a pair of knives, the hilts of which protruded from her belt at a jaunty angle. A quiver of arrows and a bow stave were propped against a log, wrapped in oilskin. A pair of horses, rangier and smaller than the draft horse that old Colm used to plow his field, were tethered to a fig tree, both beasts laden down with saddles, tack, and traveling bags. Erulisse felt her mouth go dry, the strangers could buy and sell everything in Wrecker’s Bay a dozen times over. She edged closer, keeping the bodies of several large ferns between herself and the newcomers.

“Burn you for a fool Aden,” the woman was grousing, “I knew we should have stopped back at that cave.” She leaned closer to the fire, which was sputtering in earnest now as more and more rain drops made their way down through the canopy.

“It’ll blow over Gwyn,” the man, Aden apparently, responded. The Wind definitely disagreed with him on that point, Erulisse could taste the lighting sweeping in over the sea, but she didn’t feel compelled to answer.

“Blow over, it’ll be worse than a winter storm off Aisle Dashar in an hour, mark my words,” Gwyn responded, shrugging her cloak higher around her shoulders in a futile attempt to stay dry. Erulisse began to sneak around the campsite, circling towards the horses, possessed of a sudden and powerful curiosity as to what might be in those saddlebags. Gwyn’s head snapped up, apparently having noticed something. In less time than it took to gasp, the woman was at the log, bow strung and arrow nooked. Aden responded no less decisively, unhooking his axe and stepping back so as not to be silhouetted by the now rather pathetic fire.

“You can come out. Slowly,” Gwyn advised, her accent drawing the syllables in an unfamiliar and faintly unpleasant manner. Erulisse’s heart hammered in her ribs like a trapped bird, her mouth was dry and her limbs and belly were icy cold. She wanted to run, but the glittering broadpoint of the arrow filled her mindseye as well as her vision.

“I…” she made herself say, using tremendous effort to force the syllable past her teeth. A fresh wave of chills swept over her and suddenly she really wished she hadn’t eaten that crust of bread.

“I’m coming out,” she managed to say, her voice quavering and an octave higher than she remembered it being. It took a moment to force leaden feet to move, but she eventually managed to stumble into the clearing. Both strangers immediately relaxed, Aden even managing to look somewhat embarrassed, quite a trick with that villainously crooked nose.

“It is just a kid,” he breathed, letting out a chuckle that was more relief than amusement.

“Is it?” Gwyn asked, dark eyes still scanning the forest as though Erulisse might be a distraction for some kind of attack. Evidently Gwyn decided that a nine year old girl was not, in fact, the vanguard of a band of pirates and lowered her bow.

“What are you doing here?” the archer demanded. Erulisse blinked, the fear in her belly had turned hot, making her angry.

“I live here,” she responded tartly, “what are YOU doing here!” Aden chuckled earning a scowl from his companion.

“We haven’t seen anyone in a week, not since we left Shada’s Crossing,” Gwyn admitted, unstringing her bow with quick deft movements and tucking the string away to keep it out of the damp. Shada’s Crossing was just words to Erulisse, but strange and exciting the same way the words she read in her book were.

“Do you live in the forest?” Aden asked.

“I’m from…” she nearly said the Village, but she knew that wouldn’t mean anything. “Wrecker’s Bay.”

“Wrecker’s Bay?” Gwyn asked with a cocked eyebrow.

“It’s just a name,” Erulisse responded a trifle defensively, “it’s about two hours walk south of here.”

“Thats a long way from home at night,” Aden remarked in a carefully neutral tone.

“I was just playing,” Erulisse half lied. Now that the immediate threat seemed to have passed she was full of questions. They seemed to tumble out of her mouth one after the other running on a nearly unintelligible burst of speech. The truth was she didn’t talk much, not to her father and certainly not to the other children in the village, now it seemed like she couldn’t keep her tongue under control. Who were they? What were they doing here? Where was Shada’s Crossing? How long had they been traveling? Did their horses have names? Could she ride them?

“Whoa, whoa,” Aden interjected, throwing his palms forward in bar.

“Maybe you can tell us your name?” he prompted. Erulisse coloured slightly to have forgotten to provide that important piece of information.

“Erulisse Avehelm,” she admitted.

“Well Erulisse, my name is Aden and this is Gwyn,” the man explained. Erulisse decided it would be impolitic to admit she knew that from eavesdropping already.

“And we are hunting for the Horn of Valere,” he admitted, the words provoking another excited barrage of questions.

“You’ve heard of it then,” Aden laughed. By now the fire was all but out, a combination of neglect and the fact that the once dry stream bed in which it had been built was filling with a slow trickle of rainwater washing down from the hills. The air suddenly rent with a crack of thunder, raising delighted goose pimples on Erulisse’s arms and neck.

“We need shelter Erulisse,” Aden said, pointedly avoiding the I told you so glance Gwyn was shooting him. “Is there anywhere closer than your village?”

Erulisse thought of her little house, but dismissed the idea. These two were much too big for it and she didn’t want to climb the hill into the teeth of the storm. Besides, another idea was quickly taking form in her fertile imagination.

“The ruins,” she said at once. Sure, the wisdom said they were cursed, but she had two Hunters of the Horn with her, and besides she was beginning to think that Wisdom al’Hussan wasn’t nearly as wise as everyone pretended, the Wind hardly ever told her the truth. Both grown ups stiffened, shooting each other unreadable looks.

“There are ruins nearby?” Aden asked, not quite masking his excitement. Erulisse nodded, and then suddenly became concerned they might not let her go with them if she didn’t take charge of the situation.

“I can show you,” she assured them.

Erulisse could not show them. She had heard talk of the ruins since she was little, but had never actually seen them. Nevertheless she set off down the stream with confidence. She knew this stream led northwest because otherwise she would have crossed its mouth on her way from the village to her house and it had to flow to the sea. No one from the village would have ventured too far inland, so if there were ruins, she knew they had to be north and close to the coast. Above them the sky screamed with lightning, great purple chains of it that danced on the eyelids even if you closed them. The rain came too. Down in sheets that thrilled the skin with their sting. The dry stream became a brisk flow, and then a torrent that forced them out of its bed and up onto the bank. The sound of rain on the leaves was deafening, drowning out even the mating calls of the thousands of frogs the rain had roused. The longer they walked the more nerves began to work on Erulisse, eating away at the euphoria the storm had induced. What would happen if she couldn’t lead the hunters to the ruins? Surely she could blame it on the storm and the dark, easy enough to say she got turned around. A hand grabbed her collar from behind. Instinctively she screamed and kicked trying to squirm free.

“Peace girl! Peace for the Light’s sake!” Aden was shouting. Suddenly she became aware that she was all but dangling over a sharp fall at the edge of a shallow valley. The stream they were following tumbled down a series of rocky steps to join a larger body somewhere in the storm lit dark below. On the far side of the valley were the unmistakable outlines of stone buildings. Even from here it was clear that whatever the place had once been, it was now in a state of utter collapse. Truncated stumps which had once been towers were outlined against the sky, and piles of masonry were overgrown and infiltrated by grasping vines which sought to prise stone from stone. Aden pulled Erulisse back from the precipice. For a moment she was afraid that now she had brought them to the goal, albeit more by luck than good judgment, he was going to send her away. Well he was going to TRY to send her away. Instead Aiden just shook his head.

“And how in the bloody buggering hell are we going to get the horses down there?”

With considerable difficulty it turned out but before the hour was out they were on the valley floor. Crossing the river proved less of a challenge but was considerably more dangerous. By now the raging storm had filled the center of the usually dry valley with a raging torrent of muddy water, filled with debris and flotsam washed down by the sudden downpour. Erullise clung to the back of Aden’s horse, marveling at the power of the beast against her skin as it struggled through the surging waters. By the time they splashed ashore it was breathing hard and they dismounted for the final walk to the edge of ruins. Erulisse was all but shivering with excitement, the smell of the valley was earthy and mysterious and the ammoniac scent of the horse's sweat prickled at her sinuses. Curtains of rain slashed over them cutting visibility to almost nothing. It seemed to Erulisse that they moved out of sync with the world, walking and walking and progress only registering when a bolt of lightning lit the sky. So disconnected was this, that it was a shock when the rain stopped, cut off by the overhang of a partially collapsed gatehouse. It was as though she began a step in one world and ended it in the other. The constant stream of rain that had run down her body abruptly stopped, as though someone had driven the bung back into a barrel.

“Light be praised,” Gwyn breathed, shaking her coat in a futile attempt to clear the sodden garment of water. Erulisse looked up at the gatehouse. It must have been thirty feet tall when it was new, taller than Gatson’s mill, maybe even taller than the masts of the costal traders that occasionally visited. She could not comprehend how people had piled up so much stone. She reached out and ran her hand over the wall. The blocks were very smooth, and fitted tight, mostly defying the penetrating grasp of moss and vines. She glanced at the piles of collapsed stone around them, wondering what could have possibly brought them down.

“The Breaking of the World,” Aden observed, correctly divining her thought. For a moment they all stared at the ruins, spellbound. Then Gwyn reached forward and tore away a section of ancient timber from the stonework. It came away with a powdery crack.

“Let’s get a fire going.”

It was after midnight when the rain finally gave out. Erulisse had been dozing against the wall, warmed by the fire and a spare cloak Gwyn had pulled from a saddle bag. The fabric was dark and hooded, and it had been soaking wet, but a few hours in the heat of the fire had dried it almost completely, so that it was warm and soft. It was the finest garment Erulisse had ever touched.

“Goodbye Storm,” she whispered to a distant crack of lightning. Aden, who was watching the darkness while Gwyn slept by the fire turned to look at her.

“What was that?” he asked. Erulisse shook her head.

“Nothing,” she replied. People didn’t like it when she talked to the Wind. People didn’t like it when she talked in general, the truth be told.

“They don’t have shoes where you live?” Aden asked, nodding to her bare feet. Erulisse looked down, wiggling her bare and calloused toes.

“Sure, we have leather boots for gathering oysters, otherwise you get all cut up,” she explained.

“Huh,” Aden responded.

“People have got to be worried about you,” he continued. Erulisse shrugged.

“Maybe tomorrow, when they notice I’m gone,” she admitted, she sensed that Aden was judging her, her family, she wasn’t entirely sure. Unexpectedly it stung.

“Goodnight,” she said shortly and rolled over to pretend to sleep as her eyes filled with tears.

Warm sunshine woke Erulisse a moment before the smell of cooking bacon. Her empty stomach growled and she sat up, shrugging off her blanket. The storm of the previous night had shredded into wispy fingers of light cloud. Aden and Gwyn were hunched around a healthier looking fire than she remembered from the night before. Evidently, someone had gathered fresh timber while she had been asleep. Both of the grown ups were armed and armored, with weapons laid close to hand. Gwyn was eating a chunk of bacon from the point of a knife. Aiden pushed some over towards her and she eagerly took it, ignoring the hot oil on her fingertips as she tore at the salted meat with her teeth.

“Are we going to explore the ruins now?” Erulisse asked, words muffled around a mouthful of bacon. With the sun up she had a better view of what had been but shadows the previous night. The reality was both more impressive and more disappointing all at once. The state of disrepair was stark. Hardly a building she could see hadn’t been completely ruined by a combination of earthquake and the insatiable encroachment of the forest. Even so her mind's eye could draw out how magnificent this place must have been, soaring towers, broad plazas, palaces of polished stone which must have shone in the sun. Only in the pages of her book had she imagined anything like it. The idea that it existed so close to life in her village made her feel strange.

“We really going to take a kid into a place like this?” Gwyn asked, removing her cloak and adjusting the straps on a heavy leather jerkin. Aden shrugged, setting his mail clinking.

“What are we going to do, leave her to watch the horses?” he asked. The sudden light in Erulisse’s eyes was enough to convince the other hunter.

“Fine, let’s get going,” Gwyn agreed.

Erulisse looked about with bright eyes. They had been in the ruins for over an hour and she wasn’t the least bit dead. That would show Wisdom al’Hussan. It was clear to her that the Hunters weren’t simply randomly wandering, they were trying to make their way to the center of the complex, though they were turned back by fallen stonework at several turns. She was all but buzzing with excitement, eager to poke around in the smallest of the tumbledown buildings.

“I found a way through,” Aden called, emerging from a nest of vines and fallen stonework. Gwyn and Erulisse scrambled up and into the passage. It was larger than it looked and oddly formed. Erulisse brushed her hand along the stone and pulled it away, frowning at the black fibers that came away on her hand. Before she could comment on it they were out the other side and climbing down a pile of moss covered stones. The tumble down grew more regular and Erulisse realized she was looking at seats looking down onto an open space. It might have once been clear, but now the unobstructed sun and dirt and dust of ages had provided a layer of soil in which a proliferation of ferns had sprung up. The verdant green was shot through with vibrant purple bougainvillea and pale gold trumpet blooms. The effect was rather pretty though for some reason it made Erulisse feel sad.

“What is this place?” Erulisse asked. Before anyone could answer, the ferns exploded as something huge and black launched itself from among the greenery. The next thing she knew she was laying in the dirt at the base of the pile as a miniature avalanche of stones followed her. Her head rang as though someone had hit it with a pot and her eyes watered. She stared up at the brilliant blue sky, tasting copper in the back of her throat. Both hunters were screaming, though the content of their words was just noise. A white flicker of fletching snapped over her head a moment before she managed to push herself up onto her feet. Her brown eyes widened like saucers as she beheld the source of the attack. It was a monster. A massive scorpion the size of a fishing dory was scrambling down the rockfall. The thing struck at Aden with its huge pincers, chitinous blades cracking together like the snap of sails in a storm. A huge stinger was coiled behind it, dripping with venom and ready to strike but lacking the balance to do so. The Hunter caught the blow with the haft of his axe, the force of it sending him sprawling into the ferns. It reared back to strike and then recoiled as an arrow cracked off the carapace protecting its eye. It staggered, dislodging another storm of stones as it skittered with a liquid fluidity no biped could match. The split second delay induced by the arrow allowed Aden to scramble to his feet and slash at the scorpion’s head. The axe blade hit with a sound like a mallet smashing a clam. Ichor flew in all directions as the force of the blow shattered one of the heavy plates protecting the left eye, pulping the organ to viscous mush. The scorpion surged forward in a berserk rage, hammer Aden from his feet with its sheer bulk. Blocking the scything mandibles and claws with the beard of his axe, the hunter rolled and regained his feet. Arrows sleeted in as Gwyn desperately tried to strike the monster, but the uncanny speed and thick plates of chitin turned each shaft. Erulisse’s head had cleared enough to run, but the bulk of the horrible creature was between her and the way out. Her whole body shook and she felt a paralyzing cold in her stomach. Mewling like a baby she reached down and closed her hands around a stone, picked it up, and made a pathetic effort to hurl the improvised missile. Terror robbed her of power and the stone fell short by a half dozen feet. Hissing like a boiling kettle the scorpion drove Aden back into the greenery, its pincers cutting fronds and trunks alike in its wounded fury. With a sudden sideways scuttle it lunged, its right pincer closing around the Hunter waist. It lifted the screaming Aden into the air and then, like a cracking bullwhip, drove it drove its stinger into his chest. The hunter flew backwards, out of its grip, his axe spinning into the undergrowth. Erulisse stared wide-eyed, tears of terror and horror staining her face, a scream frozen in her throat. The victorious scorpion turned towards her and glared at her with its one remaining eye, foul fluid running down the ruin of the other. It skittered forward to finish her off and all Erulisse could do was squeeze her eyes shut. There was a terrifying sound, all clacking and a high pitched howl. Opening her eyes she saw the scorpion crabbing erratically sideways as though it had forgotten how to walk. It was desperately trying dislodge the shaft of an arrow that had punched through its smashed eye socket. All at once it seemed to lose coordination and crash to the ground, lifting a cloud of dust and leaf litter. It made a few more feeble efforts to rise and then lay still, save for the occasional spastic twitch.

Erulisse managed to turn her eyes to Gwyn who was standing atop a small boulder thirty feet away. Calmly she drew another arrow from her quiver and loosed, sinking the shaft to the fletching in the eye socket beside the first. This time the monstrous thing didn’t so much as twitch. Gwyn gave Erulisse a smile of triumph a moment before her chest erupted in a spray of blood and gore. A second scorpion had sprung from the fern’s plunging its stinger directly into the archers back. Gwyn’s expression changed to astonishment in the few moments it took for her life blood to gush down the front of her tunic. The scorpion shook its stinger free, dropping the corpse of the Hunter to the ground and then pounced upon it, rending and worrying at her corpse with mandibles and pincers. Erulisse was screaming uncontrollably. Blindly, she fled towards the tunnel by which they had entered, scrambling up over the rocks with no concern for the cuts she inflicted on her palms and knees. Some morbid instinct compelled her to look over her shoulder, just in time to see the scorpion lift its eyes to her, a severed hand falling from its blood stained maw. With the same eerie hiss it sprang at her, clearing twenty feet in a single mighty leap. Erulisse lost her grip in terror and fell, chance sparing her life as the venom soaked stinger punched into the rock three feet above her, showering her with dust and spattering her ragged garment with fluids. It stank like rotted almonds and stung her skin where it touched but there was no time, nor any room in her mind for worry. She tumbled down the rocks between the thing’s legs, coming up on her knees. For a few desperate feet she crawled before finding her feet, running full speed into the snarl of greenery. Desperate feral instinct told her to seek cover, find some cranny to worm her way in and hide, but she could hear the creature behind her, heavy branches slapping against its armored hide. Thorns tore at her dress and skin as she fled, mindlessly stumbling on, desperate panic fogging her mind. She was no longer screaming but only because her throat was so raw it emitted only a hollow piping sound. Erulisse burst free of the grove and crashed into a wall, bloodying her lip and stunning herself, she staggered backwards, blinking desperately to clear tears from her eyes. A long wall of polished stone ran in a curve away from her, she could see the pediment of a tunnel mouth and staggered towards it, though how much help it could be she had no idea. The scorpion burst from the undergrowth, clattering against the wall as it turned to face her, jet black eyes glittering with malevolent hunger. She backed up frantically as the thing stalked towards her, but there was nowhere left to go.

“For the Light!” Aden roared as he exploded from the undergrowth. The hunter’s tabard was shredded and his breastplate gleamed where the pincer had scored along the metal. Blood frothed at his lips but his eyes were bright. The scorpion tried to pivot but clattered against the wall once more, robbing it of maneuver for a critical moment. The axe whistled in a glittering arc, cutting through two of the creature's legs with a satisfying snack snack. The scorpion recoiled away, staggering at the loss of two limbs. Aden whirled with the force of his stroke and severed the third at the base. Ichor flew in all directions as the great beast crashed down, spasming and trying in vain to strike with pincer and tail. Aden took a step back, gripped his axe with both hands, and drove the blade down into the side of the creatures head with a sound like a pick shattering granite. Chitin exploded away from the blade, spattering Erulisse with fluid and stinking brain matter. Aden drew his axe back and smashed it forward a second time, pulping the thing’s head to the brainstem with the force of bulging biceps and animal hate. The creature released a fetoid cough which burbled in its ruined throat and then lay still.

“You are alive!” Erulisse gasped when she was able to speak, though the effort of it all but drove her to her knees. Her heart was trying to break free of her chest and there was blood all over her arms and legs. What else was spattered on her besides blood she didn’t want to think about. Aden turned to look at her, his face was ashen and his lips gray. Ugly black veins snaked up his neck and she could see his pulse hammering in his throat. Her eyes tracked down to where the scar on the breastplate vanished in a coating of blood beneath his gorget.

“I…I’ll get the wisdom,” Erulisse blubbered, eyes wide and terrified. Aden nodded solemnly.

“Good girl…. Go get…” frowning he reached out to wipe the blood that had begun running from his nose.

“Go get…” then he pitched forward with a metallic crash and lay still.

Erulisse lay the pair of daggers on the shelf beside Poppy. The doll had come up in the world considerably in the past few weeks. She had several bright shiny coins and a small axe made from a spoon. She had also acquired a dress made from scraps of red silk and a tiny breastplate fashioned from a clamshell. Erulisse squirmed into her nock and took out the real treasure.

“I have a new story for us this week,” she announced as he opened a leather bound book entitled Upon the Breaking of the World and began to read.