The following morning, I was in bad shape. My head pounded, my mouth tasted like a skunk had nested in there for the night. I blamed Elsbeth. Offering someone from the North of England a get out of jail free card with hangovers, was just asking for trouble. I just hoped we hadn’t spent all of our money.
Elsbeth arrived at our room just before breakfast. She stood straight and regal, hands clasped behind her back and a serious expression on her face. “I have few regrets in life, gentlemen. But offering to remove your hangovers is certainly now amongst them.”
I saw Mal, grabbing his pillow and putting it over his head.
“Joel. The servants of the temple humbly request that should you visit again, you use the toilets provided. Rather than urinate on the door to Priestess Myrna’s quarters. Also, if it’s not too much trouble. Please remember to put yourself away properly afterwards.”
Joel disappeared under the covers with an audible groan.
“Clive, I believe these trousers and trainers are yours,” she said pulling the items in question from behind her back. “They were found in the main hall. I am impressed that you managed to retain your Hoodie of Devotion, and even used it for Pajamas no less.
“And finally, Mal, all I can say is well done. You managed to get vomit on all twenty-six of the steps leading up to the temple's main entrance. A truly remarkable achievement.”
“Shit, sorry Priestess,” I said sitting up and rubbing at my temples. “To make matters worse, I didn’t meditate either. So yeah. Let myself down a bit last night.”
“I’m impressed with your humility to apologise at least,” She said walking over and placing the trainers and trousers on my lap. Laying a hand on my shoulder, she began chanting. I felt the warming energy flow into me from her hand, refreshing and repairing my body. I felt energized immediately and couldn’t stop myself from gasping. The arm! It didn’t hurt!” I said thinking there might have been a breakthrough. I studied it for a moment. It certainly hadn’t improved. The unevenness that had recently appeared had turned into clearly defined shallow ridges now. Faint traces of red lines were also making an appearance which didn’t bode well.
“I was able to direct the cleansing to not enter your arm, Clive. That’s why it didn’t hurt.”
“Well, thank you. I appreciate the effort. That must be difficult to have accomplish. Now you’ve cleared me of the morning depressions. I also want to thank you for letting us do that. Back home we always have a wake for those we lose. That was ours last night for Daz and I’m glad to have gotten the opportunity.”
“It’s alright,” she whispered. “Nothing much happens in the temples, so you all provided a bit of entertainment, even to those pretending to be outraged. None of you were violent, or aggressive, which would have caused problems.”
“That’s good to hear. How come the triplets didn’t cause any trouble? They drank a load more than us.”
“George and Tracy are still asleep in the bar. Remus is asleep down stairs in the corridor. Thankfully they did nothing else.”
“Well damn. I don’t think I’ll be visiting Meve’s temple of Devotion again in a hurry. Is there anything we can do to make up for it?”
“Not really,” Elsbeth laughed.
“Who had to clean the piss up?” Joel asked, shamefacedly.
“One of the servants. I’m not sure who.”
“How much do servants get paid a day?” Joel, asked, half groaning and looking awfully green.
“I.. I’m not sure. Their weekly wages are usually five bronze coins, I believe,” Elsbeth said curiously.
“Here,” he said putting his hand in his robes. He pulled out five bronze coins. “Give them that.” Then he looked to me and Mal. “It’s Out of my share of what we have. I don’t expect you both to go without.”
Mal shook his head and pulled out the same amount. “For whoever had to clean the steps. And I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Elsbeth smiled. “You all have good hearts. I’m sure this will be appreciated.”
“These two are keeping all the money,” I said. But I’ll offer the same for whoever had to clean up after me. Found my clothes. Err…whatever. You know what I mean.”
“Oh thank you. What shall I buy with my five bronze coins.” Elsbeth laughed and as my face suddenly grew hot.
“Thankfully, it was only some clothing, Clive. I think the gesture so far is more than enough. The servants will be more than happy with their windfall,” Elsbeth said as she moved to cleanse Mal and Joel.
I was impressed when she even did the same for some very apologetic half ogres as we made our way through the town to depart for our next day of travel.
A few mile out of Meve, I realized we hadn’t been given a choice on destination this time. Not that we knew anything about the lands around here. But it was nice to have a name for where we were heading.
Elsbeth was talking with Mal as usual. I had a mild squirming of jealousy. I forcefully pushed it down whenever it appeared. She was attempting to make Mal stronger, and I couldn’t complain about that. But I still wanted to know where we were heading.
“Hey guys, sorry to interrupt, but where are we headed today. It’s nice to know the names. I don’t know why.
“Desole,” Mal said shortly, seeming irritated that I’d interrupted.
“It is the only option for us, from, Meve,” Elsbeth added. “Knuntang is on the other side of that mountain range.” She pointed up at the purple snowcapped mountains looming to our left.
“On this northern road, we basically hit each town as they come. Though the towns are well spaced for travel.
The distance to Desole is a little shorter than we walked yesterday, so we should make it with plenty of day light remaining today. We do travel closer to the mountains, but there is little to concern ourselves with. Perhaps the occasional group of dwarves on their way into to Meve.
“I thought dark aligned people weren’t allowed in Meve?” Joel asked.
“Dwarves are different. The mountains are their territory and if we want all of those precious ores, we have to trade with them. In their defense, they don’t cause much trouble. Other than the Grobbler’s they are so much better at mining than any other race, which actually makes trading with them more cost effective than running our own operations.”
“Fascinating. I’d like to meet a dwarf. Who do they worship again?”
“They worship Darkness, Joel,” Elsbeth replied.
“Can Darkness make a portal home?”
“If I said yes, would you consider joining his followers?” Elsbeth asked, a wary tone in her voice.
“You said Darkness was okay, right? Not a bad guy?”
“I would never encourage you to throw your lot in with him though.”
“Can he get us back?” Joel asked again fighting to keep the frustration from his voice.
“Honestly, Joel. I don’t know, and I don’t say that just to discourage you. Darkness, as you can probably imagine is very secretive with his powers.”
Joel nodded thoughtfully. Not seeming to be offended by Elsbeth’s evasion. I sensed she knew more, but she would have her reasons.
We took a break an hour or so before noon, to eat and more importantly for me to meditate.
“How is the arm?” Mal asked coming over as I settled on the floor. Boris lay between us, and I found his presence comforting.
“Not good, mate. It's turning more and more demon like by the day. At least it’s still not spreading further up though,” I said waving my arm in his direction. The moment I did, there was a piercing howl.
“Well, that was seriously coincifuckindental,” Mal said as we all started looking around frantically to locate the source of the howl. Boris was back up on his feet, hackles risen, as he also searched.
Multiple howls sounded again, closer, this time. There was still no sign of what was out there. The rolling hills were covered in waist high grass and shrubs. We were essentially blind.
Everyone started pulling weapons. Mal quickly handing me my hammer. Boris turning slowly in circles growling and barking in all directions, which didn’t bode well.
I damn near crapped myself, when Elsbeth suddenly rose up in the sky. A moment of concern that she was saving her ass, quickly gave way to comprehension as she shouted back down.
“We’re surrounded! Ten wolves. Most likely Wultr,” she continued before launching a number of quick-fire Flames of Devotion.
I heard a yelp and from the long grass perhaps 10 yards away a number of very tall, rugged, people wearing furs stood up out of the grass, snarling in our direction. They looked very human other than the pointed ears, tails and the fact that they were in the region of seven feet tall.
“State your business!” Elsbeth yelled out.
“Scent of Demon in Wultr territory! We hunt and kill Demon,” said the largest Wultr among them, bigger than the rest by half a foot. His identifier named him as Chusk, level 37 Wultr Chief.
“There are no Demons here, but one of our number carries a demon curse,” Elsbeth replied. “The minions of Destruction are our enemies, too. We are seeking a way to purge the curse from him.” While she spoke, my eyes flickered to the female standing next to Chusk. She was possibly the second largest Wultr there and the most striking. Well-muscled, with long silver hair, piercing yellow eyes. She was both beautiful and terrifying. I was pulled from my ogling by the leader's response. Hope soared for a moment.
“We will purge the curse now,” He growled. “Show us the carrier.”
“As far as I know,” Elsbeth replied. “The Wultr do not have the power to remove such a curse,”
The Alpha raised his hand in the air, sharp retractable claws slid out of his fingertips threateningly . “I disagree!”
“I have a mission from Devotion to deliver this man to Natom Hilgresh in Faray. So understand this. My first shots were fired in warning if anyone moves closer. The next shots will be to kill.”
“May I at least come closer and inspect the Demon?”
“He is no Demon. To show we have nothing to hide, you may approach until I tell you to stop. If you go any further or attempt to harm him, I will cook you alive.”
It will come as no surprise. I was very happy to have Elsbeth with us right now. Before the leader replied, he discussed something with the woman next to him. She seemed to be angry with him and he back handed her hard. I was impressed by how little she moved from the blow, barely acknowledging it. Focusing on her identifier she was named Sania. Her level was 35, so there wasn’t much difference between them. The rest of them were low thirties and high twenties. Not a weak force by any stretch of the imagination.
Chusk, turned back and smiled at Elsbeth. “I understand.” He said simply and began to move forward.
I didn’t trust him at all. I suspected he thought he was strong enough to avoid whatever Elsbeth had planned. I held up my left arm, so that he had no reason to come too close.
“See mate? It’s just the arm. I’m all good and wouldn’t mind killing a few demons myself after they pulled this shit on me.”
He didn’t reply, just kept on walking towards me.
“That’s far enough,” Elsbeth shouted down.
Instead of stopping he put on a burst of speed, zig zagging immediately as he closed the distance. Esbeth sent down a powerful shot, but he managed to evade it for the most part, clearly taking some damage, but somehow only slightly stumbling from the blast.
As he closed on me, I reassessed my estimate of his height. He was way bigger than seven foot. Or I’d suddenly shrunk, which was entirely possible as the terrifying fucker loomed closer.
I gripped my hammer ready, though I felt it would do as much damage as whipping a rhino with a shoe lace.
Around ten feet away he jumped at me, morphing into a massive wolf mid-air. As his jaws were mere inches away, he was hit fully in the chest by a blast green of energy which halted his flight, and dropped him to the ground, shaken not stirred. As Chusk tried to rise, Boris raced in, hitting his hindquarters. I immediately followed up by hitting him in the head as hard as I could with my Fledgling Hammer of the Pitiful absorption. The spikey end was remarkably effective and after a few panicked blows, the already weakened Chusk, was no more.
Notifications popped up, which I had to dismiss immediately. I hated doing it. Though on this occasion, I didn’t think the points would matter too much to our survival if I was killed while trying to allocate them.
I looked up from the body of Chusk and it was a weird moment. I don’t think anyone knew how the Wultr would react. Including themselves, as they stood in shocked silence.
Elsbeth caught me by surprise landing beside me roughly. “Sorry I missed,” she said, sounding as if she was in pain.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. Are you alright?” I asked quietly. Genuinely concerned about her.
“Out of DP. Ran out on my way back down. It’s not a good feeling to be out of the power, when you’re used to holding all of the time.”
“Ah, right. So what happens now? We killed their alpha?” I said watching those surrounding us with a careful eye.
“Honestly, I’ve no idea. If they attack, I don’t have much left to offer. I invested a lot into that last Flame of Devotion. It was an insta-kill shot if it hit him.”
“Maybe split the power next time?” I offered unhelpfully. Elsbeth gave me a sour look. “I’ll keep that in mind, next time I’m desperately trying to save your life under pressure.” She said, then with almost a hiss added, “And try to remember, despite my level, I’m a priestess, not a Paladin.
“Sorry,” I replied simply. There was no time for anything else as the Wultr began to move closer together.
The Female, named Sania was still staring at where Chusk lay. A disbelieving expression on her face. One of the other males, a level 32 named Tyl, seemed to be trying to take charge as we were trapped in a strange limbo.
“Let’s just back away nice and easy huh?” Joel suggested.
“We could just kill them all,” Tracy offered.
“I’m really not sure we could,” Elsbeth whispered. “I’m out of power and this is a strong pack even without its leader. These three aren’t strong enough to offer any resistance yet. So it would essentially you and your brothers against nine Wultr with an average level of thirty.”
“I only have about five Nature’s bounties, left before I’m spent, too,” Remus added.
“Let’s get back peddling then,” I said, wanting to be away from the corpse at my feet, anyway.
The new leader, Tyl noticed as we began to leave.
“We’re not finished with you yet,” he growled threateningly moving towards us.
The female Wultr, Sania finally spoke up. “There’s no demon here Tyl! There is a priestess of Devotion. We bring shame to our pack, by attacking. I warned Chusk, and the fool paid the price. Do not be a fool and follow the same path.”
“Coward!” Tyl barked at her, squaring up. He was a few inches shorter than her.
“You do not lead here Tyl. We leave and mourn our Alpha.”
As they faced off, the other Wultr were slowly splitting into two groups. It appeared that Sania’s words held a little more sway as five Wultr moved to stand with her and Tyl was left with only two of the remaining pack.
“A Female cannot lead the pack,” he said in desperation to those who’d moved alongside her.
“The strongest leads. That is how it has always been,” one of them replied. “Sania is strongest.”
I couldn’t stand the tension. “If this kicks off, we should support Sania, right?” I asked.
Both Remus and Elsbeth shook their heads. “Don’t get involved. This is a Wultr fight for leadership. They would all turn on us again if we interfered,” Remus explained.
I shrugged. Supposing that even if Sania and her three supporters somehow lost the brewing battle, which was unlikely. We’d have far fewer people to defend against.
“Hey Elsbeth,” Mal said. “How much further have we got to travel?”
“Nine days if all goes well.”
“Is this well?” He asked as we stood rooted in place as the Wultr began to fight.
“No. It’s most unusual to encounter so much trouble on Malatian roads. Though, there are unusual circumstances at play,” she said looking pointedly at my arm.
“Well, I hope we don’t have nine more days like we’ve had, or we’re not going to make it anywhere.”
I don’t know why I laughed at Mal’s assertion. He wasn’t wrong.
All conversation stopped as the fighting began. It was a brutal affair, and I couldn’t help but feel it was a stupid waste. I watched as the impressive Sania, pummeled Tyl with a combination of speed, power and remorseless aggression. He managed the occasional answering shot, but it was a very one-sided fight.
Ignoring both Remus and Elsbeth’s prior warning I stepped forward raising my arms in the air I channeled my inner head chef.
“Whoa! What the hell are you guys trying to do? I’m the enemy of demon kind here! Why’d you think they did this to me?” I shouted while waving the demon arm about. “They wanted to turn me into a demon because I’m a threat to them. The last thing we need right now is having allies and friends fighting us and each other, when the real threat is out there waiting for us to weaken. This is some of the stupidest shit I’ve ever seen. You all want to do the demon's job for them?”