“Wake up, young one.”
Ralan grumbled and rolled over the other way. “It has got to be barely the stroke of midnight.”
Wulfric smiled, or at least his beard ruffled and folded amongst itself to imply one. “We do our best work by moonlight, do we not?” He was already fully dressed, slotting his ornately polished blade into its scabbard.
“I tend to do my best sleeping, to be honest.” Ralan gingerly pulled the covers around his neck, the ice-cold thin wisps of morning mist nipping at him. He squinted as he looked around the room, seeing the gently snoring forms of his friends. Damien, covers completely off, was sleeping in a position so uncomfortable-looking that it was if he had been stuffed into the corner like a disposed rag. “Could you not have woken me last?”
“In a way I did, old sport!” The covers were whipped away, and Ralan’s teeth clenched. “Just me and you. Two Hunters on a secret mission! Like old times!”
“The thing about old times,” Ralan stood and draped his shirt over himself, doing the buttons with one hand, eyes half closed while slinging his weapons belt over his shoulder with the other, “is that newer times came along.”
“Don’t be such a wet blanket, brother!” Wulfric picked up one of Ralan’s things, opened it, and passed him one of its contents, a fire snapping into existence on his hand once it had been taken to singe its end gently. “And there’s reward in it for you.”
Ralan took a long puff of the cigar, and grinned. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
Their boots trudged through the night air, their matching coats whipping at their ankles. Moonlight bathed the crumbling architecture of the Abbey before them, shining through the remnants of its stained glass and – though they were mostly shattered and scratched almost to nothing – projected the writhing storms and dashed ships against rocks as though the building still stood proud.
“Why does anyone worship Talos?” Wulfric tutted and kicked one of the shards over the rocks into the ocean. “Destruction and chaos never changed targets because someone pledged their souls to them. Can I have a breath of that cigar?”
“Is it any different for us?” Ralan passed over the cigar with a barely-repressed smirk as the shivering Wulfric eagerly took it. “Become the enemy to understand the enemy. If you know what pleases a chaotic god and do your best to please Him, maybe you can, you know, get into his good graces.”
“There’s a difference” – Wulfric coughed and sputtered, plumes of acrid pink smoke billowing from his nose and mouth – “between learning the dark arts to arm yourself and cowering within them to escape their gaze. What is in those?”
Ralan chuckled and took a deep breath inwards, feeling the calming warmth spread through him. “I think there’s value on both sides of that coin.”
The two descended beneath the folds of the Abbey, Wulfric leading the way.
“So what’s the score?” Ralan brushed some of the cobwebs from the walls around him.
“There’s a great treasure in this place. But I can’t trust any of my Order. I can’t trust these acolytes. I certainly don’t think we can trust those you’re with.”
“I’ve been through much with that lot,” Ralan noted. “You’re the Hunter-Guardian of Waterdeep, you must have seen the fruits of our labour? Dragons flying free above the city? Coins falling like rain for all to see?”
“I’m well aware of the Golden Shower, brother.”
“Please tell me they’re not calling it that.”
“But I had no idea it was you! Trouble really does follow you around.”
Ralan bowed and beamed, his eyes closed. “I prefer to think of it as us following trouble around.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Oh, nothing. But you’re doing yourself no favours dragging me to the basement of a ruined abbey, friend. We’ve already had to fight the undead on this place.”
“It’s a wreck, that’s for sure. After you,” he beckoned.
“So courteous. Do go on.”
“When we were beached on this infernal island, I thought there had to be some sort of reason for it. Some strange design to make our home amongst these idiotic adherents to the Storm God. There was this…itch. At the base of my skull.”
Wulfric closed the stone door behind Ralan, whose eyes snapped open.
“You don’t say?”
“And the devil I’m partnered with, calls himself Danterius, he told me that if I anchored down, and waited, there would be a visitation. An entire boatload of people who would show me the way. And who else would come but you?”
Ralan’s right hand came up to run fingers through his slicked black hair. The left clenched around the hilt of his blade beneath the coat.
“Little Ralan. Messing around with his reprobate friends. Tell me, how long were you going to mess around with that gang of misfits to hide from your duty? Cowering within the walls of compassion is like no Blood Hunter rite I have ever seen.”
Wulfric slammed his fist into the wall, alight with flame, and the pits of oil along it burst into life, drops of burning oil spilling past Ralan, surging around the alcoves and down a spout onto a pile of curious blue rocks arranged in a circle on the floor. They glowed and spat, blue flames soaring towards the top of the chamber.
He turned to Wulfric. “I’m guessing those aren’t sapphires?”
“Hello, Ralan. It’s a pleasure to meet you one-on-one.”
He slowly turned back around, and caught the familiar twist of Wulfric’s beard into a smile as he did.
“For goodness’ sake, not you again.”
“Me indeed.” Bathed in the centre of the blazing blue fire was a woman, her hair solid black, her eyes a resonant amber. And – on the inside of her cloak – a glittering infinity of twinkling stars that didn’t seem to move with her. A window into the abyss. “My name is-”
“Celene Kersk,” Ralan finished. “Or at least that’s the body you’re puppeteering around. I think my friend called you Arc? Archie?”
Her eyes flashed, and two or three of the stars twinkled. “Arcavius. They call me the Lord of the Broken Throne. Prince of the Fractal Plane.”
Ralan spat on the ground. “They call me the Viscount of Lif Manor. One day I will be Hunter-Guardian of my own constituency. But I’ve got to ask; none of those names were Danterius.”
“Call it a practical joke. Like the drunkard act I induced in your friend there. Did you not think it was strange he was so…unlike himself?”
Ralan turned to look at Wulfric, who was now staggering, drool foaming from his lips. “The Order of the Profaned Soul communes with all manner of creatures and filth from outside this plane. I take it he dived too deep?”
The woman held aloft a locket, on which were several lockets. Each held the image of a different person. Screaming and banging silently against the glass. And held at the top between her fingers, Wulfric’s face pleaded for mercy.
“The secrets he told me of his Order. So many willing vessels should they suffice. Fools, all.”
“So what do you want from me?” Beneath his coat, Ralan pulled his hilt a few inches from the scabbard and dragged his thumb over the blade, feeling the quick sting of steel – and the gentle tickle of an increasing surge of energy.
“You’re going to come with Wulfric to Saltmarsh. You have so much to contribute to my glorious work. And I think we’ll see eye to eye on such matters.”
“You’re deeply mistaken if you think I’m going to-” Ralan began, but he choked as a sword erupted through his chest, blood dripping from its tip. He just about managed to turn his head to see Wulfric – his eyes glazed over – shove the sword further as he gritted his teeth in pain. Around his head, he felt the pull of rusted metal digging in, and a thousand chanting voices, all beckoning him to surrender.
The woman who was Celene Kersk who was Arcavius who was his master extended her gloved hand from the flames, as real as the walls and the sky and the infinite planes that stretch and drip into eternity. Reach your hands out and understand-
Wait. What’s happening? Why are you laughing?
“Oh, come on.” Ralan’s teeth were sharpening by the second as he bit down hard on the cigar, his pupils collapsing into thin slits, his arms extending as he reached up to pull the iron crown from his ragged hair and pointed ears. “All those secrets, and Wulfric never told you what happens when you cut me?”
He grabbed the sword’s blade and shoved it back through himself, the blood dripping from his clawed fingers and cracking with electrical energy. He swung his hand and sent the blue coals spinning, the woman in the flames flickering out of existence. Grabbing Wulfric by the head, he threw him underarmed, sending the bearded Hunter bursting through the stone walls before leaping after him.
“You’re a disgrace to the Orders, little Ralan.” Wulfric tutted mockingly as he wiped the blood and dust from his face. “Master Ward shall hear of this. And what of Master Mercer?”
Ralan’s feet dug into the rock with a screech, and he howled, Wulfric wincing as the sound reverberated from the sundered stone. Ralan’s snout twisted into a grin.
“I don’t see Mercer anywhere. Do you?”
Wulfric’s eyes burned bright blue, and he drew his sword, spinning it about himself in a wide arc. “If I can’t claim you for her plan, then you shall kneel before her throne!”
“I kneel,” Ralan snarled, “for NO ONE!”
He lunged forwards, grasping Wulfric by the head and flinging him against the floor with a sickening crack. The elder staggered to his feet – his head clicking itself back into alignment – before he extended a hand, the armatures of a great crossbow unfolding from either side of his forearm.
Bolt after bolt fired into Ralan as the colossal lynx, draped in torn fabric, stomped towards him – before serrated claws dug straight through Wulfric’s chest, Ralan hoisting him high.
Wulfric’s voice bubbled and distorted. “Dear sweet Ralan. Dancing through life with a cabal of morons in the hopes of achieving the greater good.”
Ralan sniffed at his friend. “Become the enemy…”
“To understand the enemy?”
“To DESTROY the enemy!”
Ralan swung with his free hand, but Wulfric snapped his fingers and the clawed paw merely scratched at his cheek. Ralan began to howl and scream, the bolts buried in his chest sizzling within him, sapping his strength like ice. His bones and muscles cracked and tore as he returned to human form, lightning sparking from his body, the pack of cigars spilling onto the ground with he rest of him.
Wulfric reached down and picked up one of the burning coals, crushing a cigar under his heel. “Dream of brewing that beer of yours in peace, dear Ralan.”
The coal burst into a smaller plume of cerulean fire, Celene or Arcavius smiling within. “Bring him to me.”
Wulfric hoisted the younger Hunter’s body over his shoulder. “At once, my Master.”
“There’s a good little-”
“YOU ARE BEING ENTERED BY SQUISH!“
The wall beside them burst into a thousand pieces, a gargantuan golden energy ripping it to shreds, concrete blocks and rebar flying across the room.
Wulfric slowly turned to face the source of the noise, the vast opening in the wall.
From the gently rising smoke strode a cleric, one arm covered in fine silver and gold armour, twirling his mace. A rock gnome, on her back a great tome and between her hands a brilliant orange spark. And – arms behind his back, immaculate black boots and blood-red waistcoat – a man with onyx hair and a green glint to his eyes.
Damien tilted his head to one side.
“Not interrupting, are we?”