Suddenly Wulfrik could hear the sound of crickets. Such a sound was uncommon to him in his youth, but he remembered it well from his travels through warmer climes.
Places such as Marah, where the people made their homes high in the tinderwoods away from panthers and jungle spirits. Oq, a place so hot and wet with a thousand and one rivers flooded year round; where men take river nymphs as wives. Or Nel Twořr, an eastern land ruled by warrior women, where they dance in the buff at night and feast on their enemies by day. And Azhong, home to beasts like dragons and basilisks, and creatures half drake and half man, with forked tongues, who spit salvo after salvo of molten sulphur.
And then Wulfrik smelled the burning of incense all around him. Scents like sandalwood, saffron, lilac and myrrh. But over that he smelled musk and sage and opium. All of it drifted on a warm breeze, leading Wulfrik to believe he was some place else. Some place other than Pytham.
“Wulfrik,” said a familiar voice.
Wulfrik opened his eyes and found he was resting on a moon-soaked balcony back in Qøthaal. Where he had earned his sword years ago.
Qøthaal was massive and powerful city-state. A place of wealth and knowledge. A confluence of the eastern and western realms. Canals were where roads should be, through a hundred islets, linked only by bridges. The harbours were larger than any man may envision and filled with seafaring vessels from worlds away. And great bazaars dotted the city north and south, where merchants sold their wares of spice and textile, slave and chattel, gold and jewel. And the ville shone bright, even at night.
And before him was a man named Yorin. The man who spoke to him. The man who taught him the ways of the sword.
Though short in stature, Yorin had bulging muscles and a full beard. A scimitar hung from his belt, and a pipe from his mouth.
“Yorin? What are you doing here?” asked Wulfrik.
A slow puff of smoke escaped from his lips, and he said, “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Is this a dream?”
“It must be… I’m dead, remember?”
“This is a memory?”
“Of a fashion, you might say. It’s strange, isn’t it?” said Yorin, “... Can you recall what happened here?”
Many years ago— before I had met Reuben— on a specific night in Qøthaal—
“To my recollection, the night was unremarkable. Nothing great in any neighbouring countries had occurred. Save our… ‘enlightening’ conversation.”
“What was our dialogue?”
“The exact words escape me.”
“And me. But I didn’t ask for a transcript. Nothing verbatim. And certainly not in my language. You must be rusty by now.”
“Yes,” Wulfrik smiled, “it’s been a while.”
Yorin offered his opium pipe, and Wulfrik threw up his hands in refusal. “Perhaps I should not partake this time,” said Wulfrik, “It dulls the senses.”
“Indeed. Before battle it would be unwise. But if this is a memory— A dream— it might help you to remember our conversation. And to find the answer…”
“The answer? Answer to what?”
“To the question you’re still asking.”
He took the pipe. Wulfrik thought long and hard, until the phrase was as clear in his mind as the tendrils of smoke wafting about him. Something he had heard one night on the roof of an opium den years ago, and again in a dream from the light of the full moon. A proverb he’d picked up on his travels. We walk out on our own two feet but we are not free.
“I heard it here?”
“You said those words? I could never remember where I’d heard it… What does it mean? What is its importance?” pried Wulfrik.
“I said many things that night, Wulfrik. Things I had no idea would have such meaning for you in the future. Places you would go. People you would meet. That you would come to Pytham. That you would encounter the likes of Reuben, or Ceriwyn, or Vorkath Bazurr…”
“Some beasts walk on all fours, some touch the ground with two. And some move so gracefully near the ground their feet and hands never do.”
“Wait!” Wulfrik interjected, “who is Ceriwyn?”
This flood of information only bombarded Wulfrik, and it was beginning to overwhelm him in his drug-addled state. In this dreamscape. So much he could not remember all of it. Not when he woke up.
At that moment, a beautiful woman strode between him and Yorin wearing nothing but red silk, and an eight-pointed star adorned the nape of her neck, with smaller matching octagrams covering the backs of her hands. Though he couldn’t see her clearly. The moon shone too brightly around her.
Then with her legs crossed, she sat on the balustrade, so that she may face the two men. But Wulfrik still could not see who she was for she was only further draped in celestial light, and an air of familiarity.
“Wulfrik,” she said sternly.
“Who are you?”
Wulfrik searched her face, but it was a mystery to him. A silhouette. Yet, she didn’t hold herself in a manner that was threatening, or speak in a way that was unnerving or malevolent. But he could not remember her. Not there. Not that night.
“You need to wake up, Wulfrik. You need to be on your guard!”
“No, you weren’t here,” said Wulfrik assuredly, “I would have remembered you!”
“Who I am… and why I am here now are completely irrelevant. You have been here too long, and you need to leave. You have strayed too far!”
The hunter stood up, and went for the sword at his hip, only to realise that it was in Yorin’s hand. Shit. It was his sword then.
Rising as well was Yorin, and he was brisk along the veranda, and doubly fast with the blade; raising its point to Wulfrik’s hyoid instantaneously. Wulfrik’s instructor, the master swordsman, pressed against his student’s neck, piercing the flesh. And he looked up at Wulfrik’s face, and grimaced.
Unable to gasp, the credulous and unvigilant Wulfrik whispered, “I don’t understand; this never happened—”
Yorin spoke portentously, and he spoke truth as well. In a husky and jarring sort of way that he did not know the man to speak, “Many things never happened. Which should have and likewise should have not. The same holds true for the hereafter. For your future. Though don’t worry, Wulfrik, you will be slain in battle. As you feathered ones often are. However there are one of two places for your soul, Wulfrik. Carried down into the deep of the earth, or aloft the skies between Freiá and Siará.”
Finally Yorin slashed his scimitar across Wulfrik’s throat. The blade singing as it cut. Copious amounts of blood poured out, and Wulfrik was faint again. But a quick look from the mystery woman standing by behind him prompted Yorin to say one last thing before he died.
“It seems that I will not be the last spirit you meet in Pytham, Wulfrik. There will others. Others worse than me; and far worse than you may remember. Some may even try to deceive you. This journey of yours is more treacherous than anyone could have expected. And unfortunately, when you wake up, you might not remember everything that happened here. So remember this: What you hunt and what hunts you, are not one and the same. But make no mistake, both are deadly.”
The woman knelt down beside Wulfrik as his vision began to fade, but he saw eyes change from brown to green when she said, “Open your eyes.”
When Wulfrik came to, he was no longer shivering, but sweating and panting. On account of the fire burning in the middle of the quinzhee. And when he shot up, he almost struck his head against the cold domed ceiling.
He clutched at his throat, only to find it had not been ripped apart, and subsequently dropped the phial from his grip. And he shouted in between breaths, “You have strayed too far!”
“Whoa!” said Reuben holding him back; pushing against his chest to prevent him knocking down their shelter.
“Settle down, Wulfrik. Settle down. Take a deep breath…”
Obediently, though after some moments to get his bearings, Wulfrik returned to a normal sinus rhythm.
It was just a dream. I’m alive. Reuben is alive…
“I don’t think I’ve known you to sleep more than an hour at any one time,” said Reuben. “You were out for nearly three.”
Wulfrik replied, “That’s a personal best, is it?”
“And by the way, I found Harvest under three feet of snow. That it would be so far from your reach… it must be quite a story that that would happen. That you could be so careless. Might I ask how that transpired?”
Reuben presented Wulfrik with his weapon, who was quick to take it, and sheath it where it belonged.
“A better question would be, ‘how am I still alive?’ I was dead, Reuben.”
Upon Reuben’s face spread a look of genuine shock. One of realisation. That a dæmon had brought down the mighty Wulfrik or Roktar. And it seemed he had lived at the good grace of the dæmon. At its mercy. If evil could possess such a trait. However, it was more likely Wulfrik’s life was the dæmon’s to take. Whenever it desired. Reuben decided it was best to not tell Wulfrik about his encounter with the shadow being.
Wulfrik continued, “Finally dead. The manticore’s venom was coursing through my veins. My leg swelled triple its normal size, I took on a fever, and then I fell to sleep for the rest of my life. Or so I thought.”
“It must not have been as bad as—”
“No,” Wulfrik shook his head, “even a drop of manticore venom is fatal, Reuben. No man has ever lived longer than a day with the poison in his blood. It must have been the girl.”
The most beautiful young woman I’ve ever seen.
“What happened to her after she cured me?”
“What girl, Wulfrik? You were alone when I found you.”
“She was real I tell you. Did she not speak with you?”
“There was no girl, I swear it. Is it possible you dreamt it all?”
“No.” Then Wulfrik began to look around for the phial, starting with his coat. “She put a little glass jar in my hand, and closed my fingers around it.”
It had rolled underneath Reuben, who scooped it up, and inspected the contents of the phial. Without question, it was a paste, made from an assortment of herbs. But exactly what it was used for, was hidden to him.
“This?” asked Reuben, as he handed it over to Wulfrik.
“I believe so.”
“It looks like poison.”
That I’ll grant you, but it seems to be an ointment or a…”
Not even stopping to consider if its contents were in someway baneful, Wulfrik uncorked the phial and took a whiff.
“Yes, a salve. For the bump on my head. I detect citronella, passion flower and… accacia. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been to obtain.”
“You wouldn’t suppose then that this girl was the witch we’re after?”
The angel I saw? A witch? That could not be true, thought Wulfrik.