The Wolf and the Raven
A sharp pain seized Irulen’s chest as he looked at the grisly pile and forgot to breathe. A shapeshifter? A magical culprit? I never considered…
He was snapped out of his daze by Max landing on his shoulder with a flutter. His hand instinctively raised and ran along the raven’s back.
The bird purred in his own fashion.
Irulen shut his eyes momentarily then turned back toward the town and the crowd standing in stunned silence.
The group of townspeople slowly parted and William walked toward Irulen with two things in his hands, a bloodied hatchet and a pouch of coin. He threw the latter to the wizard. “Here is your payment for resolving the crime. Angus has found the justice of my axe.”
Irulen nodded and slipped the pouch under his cloak.
William looked earnest. “There would be more coin, however, if you brought me the head of the person responsible for this.” The large man made a great sweeping motion with his hand. “This creature,” he continued with teeth clenched, “deserves an unpleasant death for the untold number of innocent lives taken by its grisly hands.”
“I’m sorry,” Irulen started, “my profession is to investigate, not to kill.”
An aged voice creaked from the crowd. “If you won’t kill him, who will?” Samford, the innkeeper, stepped forward. “It takes someone like you to kill someone like that…”
Irulen scratched his head and shifted uneasily. “It’s just that…” He paused, shook his head. “Magic isn’t meant for that kind of work. Using magic to cause death is what twists someone ‘like me’ into such a monstrosity. I’ve only killed once—one time too many. I’m an investigator and may even help apprehend a criminal from time to time… but the role of justice is always my clients’ to be played. How criminals are treated differs wherever I travel.”
The dusty voice again spoke up from the crowd. “The face of justice might change for every town you visit, but there are base evils that infect this world. One of them is fleeing this town with haste. He shows a smile through deed, but deep inside he fears the chase. He hopes you won’t follow. He is afraid of your reckoning and that…” Samford pulled a familiar brown bag of salted fish out of his pocket before he continued. “And that is why he took Farah with him!” The old man threw the bag at Irulen who fumbled and recovered it. “For your travels”.
“Farah?” Irulen scanned the crowd.
The townspeople turned inward on each other searching for her.
“I haven’t seen her all day,” said Samford. “In fact, the last person to have seen her was you.”
Jorin stepped forward, confusion furrowing his brow, anger reddening his cheeks.
Irulen held his hands up toward the mob. “Look,” he started, “she was just helping me out with my investigation.”
The old man cackled. “She must have offered quite a bit of help, judging from the time she spent in your room!”
The crowd began to grumble, the fire of suspicion spread wildly. Both the younger and elder Steadfrost looked ready to smash Irulen’s brains in the name of honor.
Irulen threw his hands in the air. “Alright, alright. I understand you people are scared and angry, but being in such a state often ends in stupidity. Do not be stupid. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I didn’t touch her… honest.”
The crowd began to quiet.
Irulen breathed a heavy sigh. “Look… I’ll help but for my own reasons.”
Jorin pulled his axe out. He didn’t seem so easily convinced.
Irulen waved his finger at him “Don’t be a hero. You’ve seen what I can do. I’d rather not do it again.”
Brom joined Jorin’s side. He too stared daggers. William Steadfrost moved to stand in front of them both, his enormous mass eclipsed them. He held no weapons, but his fists looked as large and heavy as any mace.
Irulen stood his ground. “I’m serious. Frostbridge has lost enough already. Bury and mourn your dead. Let me handle this.”
The older Steadfrost menaced Irulen with his glare. His bear heart scratched at the surface. Irulen’s breath quickened. What would I even do with this fucking beast?
Suddenly, the brute’s shoulders relaxed as if his human parts had finally started working. The big man turned from Irulen to look at his people.
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Irulen repeated. He thought his voice sounded hollow.
Steadfrost’s massive shoulders relaxed further as he turned to the wizard. “Fine. I want to send a soldier with you.”
His son jumped in. “I’ll go.”
Irulen shook his head no.
Brom stepped next to Jorin to signal his intent as well.
Irulen, perceiving the end of the immediate threat, shook his head and waved his hands. “No, no. If this were a normal quest of retrieval, I would allow it, but more people means this man can assume that many more identities. Against this foe, numbers are a disadvantage.” The group took a moment to measure the wizard’s words and accept them. “If I came across any of you on the road, I’d be forced to view you as an enemy.”
More of the crowd began murmuring in a tone of reason, but Jorin remained displeased. “Allow me to accompany you at least, even if I am to be chained to your side.”
Irulen shifted. “You want the head of this culprit. I understand… but I alone will collect it. I will send it to you by raven.” Irulen looked toward William Steadfrost and continued, “Along with a modest request of compensation, of course.”
The large man stiffened and then nodded his agreement.
“Very well, I will depart immediately.”
Irulen contemplated taking a horse for his journey. He wasn’t exactly a horse enthusiast, but in certain situations he would make exceptions and ride the brutish animals. He realized quickly, however, that there was little livestock to be had in this ghostly town, let alone steeds to be spared. Winter was especially harsh this far north and the people relied heavily on their animals. Taking a horse could spell disaster for them, not to mention borrowing or renting something came with the responsibility of having to return. Irulen did not want to return. He had, in fact, worked it out that he would certainly bypass the road and town all together should he head this way north again. No, this chase will have to be an uncomfortable one. I will have to catch this son of a bitch the hard way.
Nodding to the townsfolk, the wizard wasted no more time on idle chatter. He grabbed a small packet of supplies and set off on foot.
To put Jorin’s mind to rest, he suggested that the young man take a band north to make sure his quarry hadn’t doubled back. All indications showed that this maneuver had not been the case and that Farah and her captor headed due south toward the city of Northforge, but Irulen could not chance anyone getting in the way of his hunt. If that creature made it to Northforge before he did, Irulen would be hard pressed to find them in the huge city. Once she lost her value as his security, the mysterious person that was Lew would either kill her or sell her into slavery. Time was ticking and the challenge stood unaddressed.
The wizard and his raven began their predatory pursuit.
Jorin pulled Farah along. He held a rope tied off at her wrists. The cord’s harsh bristle tore at her fair flesh. She never fathomed that Jorin had anything to do with the murders of the town’s girls. He had always taken a fancy to her, and she had always trusted him.
Her abduction was surreal. All she remembered was Jorin outside her door and then nothing—nothing save a haze of forced servitude.
The bitter cold cut through her senses and reawakened her wits. The sharp tugging of the rope and the frozen winter air set her fingers on fire. There was a real chance she would lose her fingers to the frost. Through the blur of swirling emotions and pain, Farah followed Jorin’s outline as well as she could for fear of a jerk from that wretched rope.
She began to notice distortions in his shape and form. Every time she blinked or wandered in thought, he seemed somehow different. His shoulders seemed less broad, his height shortened. A full-body cloak concealed his features, but it just didn’t fit right anymore. It fell more loosely around his frame than before.
Suddenly, a raven’s call shattered the silence and brought her captor to a halt. “Caw!”
A stranger turned back and looked upward.
The man had a stretched, gaunt face and flappy skin around his mouth that quivered as he spoke. Three black streaks ran from each of his eyes down his cheeks, like a tattoo of dried blood. “Damn sky-rat!” he said. “If only that thing would fall out of the sky and impale itself upon a tree!” His pointy nose lowered to his captive. “What are you looking at, impudent wench?”
“Why are you doing this?” Farah’s voice trembled.
“Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Can you be any more typical? I’m tired of hearing little trollops like you asking why, why, why… Wahh! As if knowing why would make your situation any better.”
She tried opening her mouth to speak, but found it locked shut. Her eyes widened in terror.
“When,” he continued. “When is the question you should be asking yourself. How long do you really have before your innards are splayed on the ground? How long until I’m wearing your face as a mask? Now shut your little mouth and—”
“Caw!” The screech ripped through the air above them.
“If I could just grab that raven and…” The goblin-man clenched his fist at the sky. “I wonder how loud he’d caw then.”
Farah’s hands burned suddenly with a jerk from the rope. The man quickened his pace while glancing backward over his shoulder at the forested path. He looked like a man pursued.
She set her mind to desperate thoughts. He hasn’t killed me, but he plans to. I’m being saved for something. If he escapes capture, I’m dead. My only chance is to slow him down.
Farah saw only one way out. This will hurt.
She closed her eyes and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The rope jerked and then went slack for a moment as her captor walked back toward her, mumbling. She used the brief moment to blow hot air onto her hands and moved her fingers as best she could.
“Get up! Or your time will come sooner rather than later. I’ll spike you to that tree.” He grabbed the rope close to her hands and jerked.
Farah opened her mouth, but refused to cry out. Searing pain shot from her wrist up her arm, but she would not move.
A raven’s caw sounded overhead. Max swooped and circled.
“Well, it was a waste of effort bringing you this far, and the crystal gets nothing if I do the killing… but looks like I’ll have to cut my losses,” the goblin-man growled as he reached under his cloak and withdrew a fiendish looking dagger. He pushed Farah down, straddled her chest, and raised the dagger into the air.
Farah clenched her eyes shut tight and fought her assailant. During that moment between life and death, the rickety turning of wheels sounded from the direction they were heading.
Her captor looked wary at first, but then a smile crept across his flaccid features. His vacant eyes regarded her from underneath arched eyebrows. “Ah, the sweet sound of opportunity.” He flipped the knife upside down and swung the handle down upon Farah’s head.
Darkness encroached, and she slipped away.
Max circled overhead.
“Please, my daughter needs help!” The stranger held both of his hands up to halt the carriage as he crouched over Farah.
The approaching merchant brought his two horses to a halt. “Whoa, whoa.” He warily climbed down from his perch staring at the crude man and instinctively grabbed the sword at his side. This man was no stranger to ambush tactics and was clearly off-put by the other man’s ghastly appearance.
“Please,” the stranger repeated, “my daughter.”
The merchant’s eyes glanced toward the body lying prone near the tree. “Keep your distance,” the merchant declared loudly.
The stranger nodded and placed himself between the carriage and the girl.
The merchant approached Farah cautiously, looking over his shoulder to ensure a safe distance between him and the stranger. He bent over to inspect the girl and gasped at her clearly under-clothed and brutalized appearance. He drew his sword as he stood. “What have you done to this poor girl?”
A sadistic smile tore across the stranger’s face. “This is only a sample of my work, my dear friend, a morsel of it. I’d tell you more, but I have little time and less patience. And you’re going to help me.”
The merchant began to speak, but his mouth snapped shut. He scraped at his face as his eyes widen. Without hesitation, he charged his assailant. The merchant flew backward as if pushed by an inexplicable force.
The stranger laughed, pulled out his dagger, and sliced the throats of the merchant’s horses. Arterial jets sprayed as the dumbfounded beasts writhed and whinnied. The merchant made another attempt at the stranger, but he failed to reach his mark, stumbling forward into the air. His eyes were filled with rage and etched with tears.
The stranger yelled at him. “I need you to kill her, or you’re next. Cut her chest apart and place this crystal inside before her heart ceases pumping. Do this, and I’ll let you live to return to your wife and children.” He waved his hand. “Yes?”
Sobbing, the merchant climbed to his feet and picked up his sword. “I won’t do it,” he said. “I can’t.” The stranger raised his hand toward the merchant and clenched his fingers together. The poor man fell to his knees and screamed as the fingers on his left hand snapped backward one after the other.
“You will,” said the stranger. “I have no time to twist you into it. Just know that if you don’t, much more pain will come your way.” He laughed. “And when I reach Northforge, I’ll tear your family to pieces with my bare hands. I’ll return to Northforge wearing your face and body, and I’ll roam the streets until your children come running into my arms. Soon after, I’ll strip them of flesh and delight in their squeals. You have no choice in this matter, kind sir.”
The merchant caught his breath and stood again. His eyes blazed as he walked over to Farah and raised his sword slowly. Uncertainty shook his hands and contorted his face. Then there was peace, a split second of it. His shoulders relaxed and his eyes softened as he beheld Farah, who was beginning to stir. “Demons do what demon’s may, but a demon shan’t have me today.” The stranger smiled then frowned, for as the man spoke he brought his sword to bear on his own chest and fell to the ground upon it. It was a well-placed puncture, and the poor soul bled out onto the frozen road.
The stranger cried out and flung his arms in the air, like a child not getting his way.
Irulen crouched behind a tree, breathing hard against the cold as he caught up to his prey. He had seen it all through Max’s eyes. The events played out like a memory in the back of his mind. He was winded from the exertion, but rallied to his feet in a last-ditch effort.
Irulen set his mind to the task at hand. Kill him. There is no time for hesitation. No time…
The shapeshifter was so enraged that he failed to notice the approaching menace. “Damn it all.” The fiend scrambled over to Farah with his dagger drawn. He must have considered her a hindrance now. He raised his dagger.
The shifter looked up to find the raven closer than it had ever been. Low and behold, the bird sat on a branch just outside of his magical reach. He cursed, spat, and stooped to pick up a rock. He threw it, missed, and then tried again. Impatience lowered his guard.
“You’ll never hit him you know. Max has played this game quite a few times already.”
Irulen’s prey froze for a moment and then spun with a manufactured smile upon his face. He bowed low. “Allow me to introduce my—”
“No, no that won’t be necessary.” Irulen advanced toward the creature, his wrathful self in full control. “I’ll listen to anything you want to say once I’m swinging your severed head by your neck ribbons.” Although the shifter was a creature of power, his magic didn’t reach half the distance as Irulen’s. Irulen reached with both hands toward the carriage and pulled it toward him. Wheels, wood, and all the items under the cover flew through the air.
The fiend had little chance to whimper before being splattered beneath the merchant’s livelihood.
Irulen stood, breathing hard against the air for a moment, and looked up at Max, who was sitting on a branch staring back at him. “I know, I know, so much for magic economy, but I really wanted to squish this one. I hate imps.”
“Imps?” Farah asked faintly. Irulen turned to find her leaning up on her elbows.
“Hello to you too,” Irulen said, relieved. He walked to the wreckage, grabbing some smashed timber, and returned to Farah’s side. After sparking a fire for her, he went back to the debris. “An imp,” he said while removing rubble, “is a manufactured demon—a human that was made magical by a higher power.” He moved a wooden wheel out of the way. “Now, most humans aren’t made for magic. If they were, they’d have it. Any human that is bestowed magic unnaturally turns septic. They form an unbreakable attachment to the one who sired them, but their magic always turns black.” He found a pair of legs under the pile, grabbed them, and pulled. “This one’s an imp. He can’t heal, can’t help; he can only kill, cheat, and steal. Of course, the worse the person is originally, the worse of an imp he or she becomes—or so I’ve heard. This one is particularly rotten, was probably a thief or worse during his human life.”
“I don’t quite understand.” Farah’s voice was faint and far off.
“Well,” Irulen pulled again, and this time the body slid out in its entirety. He fell back onto his butt. “This fellow was so caught up in his evil that he even killed his escape—the horses.” He clamored to his feet and turned toward Farah. “Are you warm?”
“Better, thank you, but my hands hurt badly.”
“I’ll be with you in just a second.” Irulen searched around until he found the imp’s dagger on the floor. “Do me a favor and close your eyes. Hum something pretty.”
“I don’t feel much like humming.” She lifted an eyebrow and continued to stare at him.
“Suit yourself.” Irulen thrust the dagger into the imp’s neck. No time for hesitation. The blade wasn’t particularly sharp, and Irulen wasn’t particularly practiced in the art of decapitation. The process became ghastly.
Farah closed her eyes tightly and hummed.
Dismemberment wasn’t Irulen’s thing, and it was some time before he got the head completely detached. The draining blood smelt like rotten death and feces. Irulen fought back his gag reflex as he held the head up to Max. The raven seemed to hesitate a moment, but then swooped down and clutched the ghoulish package. He flew with a fast speed as if he wanted to be rid of his burden as soon as possible.
Irulen moved closer to Farah and began delving his hands into a snow bank in an effort to clean off some of the blood. “Are you alright?”
She nodded. “I think so. My head hurts, and my hands. I still feel a chill.”
“You’ll come with me to Northforge, the city isn’t far from here. Then I can return you to Frostbridge via horse with a hired escort as soon as possible.”
“I do not know if I can go back.”
“Let me see your hands,” Irulen directed. Farah complied. He pressed her palms together and placed his still-wet hands over hers.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked.
“Ha, what do you think? Some magical bubble is going to pop up and envelope our hands?”
“Will it glow?”
“No, I’m sorry, but it’ll be a pretty boring ordeal – no glowing involved. Look, it’s already started.” A slight heat emanated from his hands, and he knew her hands would burn with frostfire, the pained feeling of exposing near-frozen parts of the body to sudden heat.
Farah bit her lip at the sudden pain. The moment passed, and her teeth retreated back into her mouth. She’s so cute, thought Irulen, and this thought so inappropriate.
Speaking in dire formality, he gave her his prognosis. “Looks like we’ve saved your fingers in time. No need to deal with gnarly metallic instruments and the pains of amputation.” Noticing that Farah’s eyes wavered with concern, Irulen adjusted the register of his voice. Sounding more upbeat, he continued, “You probably don’t understand much of anything right now.” Irulen kept her hands locked between his. “You’re in shock. Let’s get you inside city walls and sit you by a warm fire.”
“Where are we?”
“We’re near the crossroads where all the roads of the north come together and lead into Northforge.”
“If we move fast, we can reach the city by the morning.”Irulen pushed himself up onto his feet without letting go of Farah’s hands. They had thawed, but he figured to help her stand before letting them go. She allowed him to pull her to her feet, and they began their trek.