To Paul, the mad dash to the looming gates of the fortress seemed deafeningly loud as armor and drawn weapons clattered and rustled, with the sound of boot steps trampling the dirt pathway serving as background. But just as Verity had said, the sounds of Lariat and the others’ volleys drew all the attention to the back of Conrioch’s defensive walls. Paul’s own hands had drawn the silver sword, almost without thought, and the rush of adrenaline helped him keep up with the fiery mystic who had spirited him away to this wild place.
As the column of monster hunters reached the heavy gates, Verity and another girl in their little squad reared back and produced streams of blazing fire from their palms. They pointed these at the center of the barriers before them and began burning a hole. The magical fire quickly opened up a charred entryway that they could all file through. Verity stepped through first, pulling Paul forward after her by his collar.
“I’m glad to see you mean to fight. But still, you must stay by my side.” As she turned to survey their surroundings, Paul thought he saw a glimmer of a smile.
Her smile was short-lived, as she spotted figures approaching in the dim light. Several of the inhuman guards had remained at their posts and now lumbered toward the breach with stiff steps, clutching spears and swords in misshapen hands. The rest of the adventurers continued to come through one by one, some of the large, beastly-looking warriors ducking to keep from hitting their heads. Verity didn’t wait for the grotesque, greyish guards to reach them. Streaks of white-hot light lept from her hands to the approaching creatures. In the momentary flashes of light that illuminated the things, Paul saw that they did look somewhat human, although whatever humanity they once had was long gone. They looked much more like animated corpses, puppeteered by unseen hands.
Paul managed to raise his own sword in defense as one of the guardsmen he now thought of as zombies brought down a rusty sword at his head. The force behind the thrall’s blow shocked Paul, and he barely managed to deflect a follow-up thrust. Despite appearing dead, they possessed an eerie strength. One of the monster hunters had appeared through the gap beside Paul and relieved the guard attacking him of its head. It bloodlessly thumped to the ground, and the body staggered aimlessly in the other direction before falling as well.
Paul’s rescuer, a tall, muscular elf, winked at him, “Gotta go for the head. Not much to these devils besides a bit of magic. They’ll keep fightin’ unless you decapitate or destroy them.”
As soon as the group had all come through the hole in the gates and the dust of combat had settled, Verity cast the spell that pushed a magical gust around them and led them onward. The square just on the other side of the gates of Conrioch was bleak and barren. Other than a handful of low railings where livestock had once been kept, the only other sight were cages. Cages full of people. Paul presumed these poor souls, who barely clung to consciousness and didn’t even look up at them as they passed, were the werewolves’ food supply. He gulped dryly at that thought and tried to keep his eyes ahead of him.
Ahead, past the square, were tight streets of low stone buildings, set in a neat and orderly pattern, but completely abandoned. Paul had the impression that Bertrand Throatripper had not established this little garrison. He wondered if the original inhabitants were now in those cages. Or worse, were they now the zombie thralls that guarded the town?
Verity led them through the grid pattern of streets and alleys, and they encountered little resistance along the way. Their little band quickly dispatched the living corpses that were scattered at guard posts along their path. The street before them ended in another square, and Verity signaled a halt as they approached it. At the edge of the square stood another massive set of doors, these to the keep most likely, Paul reasoned.
Before moving forward, Verity whispered to the company of fighters, “This is where we will likely fight Throatripper. Though he is vicious and cruel, he is a coward who lets his inferiors do the fighting while he hides away. But make no mistake, he will have no mercy. Strike if you have opportunity, no matter what.”
Turning to lead them forward, she eyed Paul with a look that spoke her intent. He was to stay with her and stay safe. Despite all he had seen her do this evening, Paul wished Lariat was here as well. Verity’s intent was still a mystery to him, and he couldn’t help but mistrust her promise of protection.
To Paul’s surprise, the gates to the keep were not barred. They opened without force, and there were no thralls or werewolves to be seen in the hall that opened up beyond the doors. The hunters instinctively spread out and assumed defensive postures as Verity led them to the wide stairway at the end of the hall. Much like the town itself, the halls they stalked through were in disrepair, showing signs of the debauchery that took place there. As they crept along hallways lined with blood-stained carpet, Paul was not the only one to give hesitant glances at the hints of recent feedings that clung to furniture and walls around them. And the stink that wafted through the whole keep grew steadily worse the further in and up they went.
Finally, without coming across a single monster that clearly inhabited this stronghold, they arrived at the top of their ascent. An ornate set of doors with intricate carvings depicting local trees stood closed before them. But on the other side, Paul finally heard noises.
Verity and one of the ax-wielding human warriors pressed their hands to the doors and pushed them open. Several of their party had bows drawn, arrows pulled back and trained through the opening entryway. The sounds of struggle grew louder, and Paul finally saw him: Bertrand Throatripper.
If the werewolves in the forest had been hulking, monstrous beasts of the darkest legends, Throatripper made them look like puppies. He stood to the full height of the vaulted ceiling of the room, his matted, mangy fur a deep black. Eyes like penetrating spotlights gleamed in the low torchlight of the room. Across his sinewy body ran scars that appeared to have healed improperly, and Paul was certain he saw the blade of dagger embedded in a hairless patch on the beast’s chest. Throatripper stood alone in the small, once-impressive hall. Alone save for the girl in emerald robes, squirming in his clawed clutches.
“Reonh,” someone to Paul’s right breathed in a panic.
Verity stepped forward with a confidence that made her seem to meet eye to eye with the behemoth, “Bertrand, you will release the girl.”
Throatripper snarled, barring his yellow fangs. “Firrene, you sly witch,” he barked in a slurring, broken accent, “I admit your trick caught my pack quite off guard. But you must wonder why you did not meet a single one of them on your way to me. I have a surprise of my own for you.”
Verity’s face betrayed nothing, but Paul’s heart began to race. The werewolf lord continued.
“Once I knew what you were up to, I sent them all out through a back passage. By now, you surely notice that there is no more sound of fighting outside. Your little distraction will cost you the lives of every miserable warrior or wizard on that bluff. A worthy trade for me to get to a true prize. Did you think I would not smell it a mile off? The blood of Adhamh. The kin of King Mardu!”
Paul felt every eye on him as the werewolf uttered the name of the one Verity had called the Shadow King. The creature had meant him. The claim that Lariat and the others were now dead — or worse — had loosened the joints in Paul’s knees, feeling unmoored by the loss of the only friend he felt he had in this alien realm. But the accusation of kinship with the so-called Shadow King fully set his head into a spin.
“I propose a trade,” the furry devil crooned, “Your precious girl here for him. She’s only been freshly bitten. If you hurry, you can prevent her from turning.”
Verity opened her mouth to answer, but Paul, lost in his own thoughts, burst out before she could speak, “What are you talking about? I’ve never heard of the Shadow King before tonight. I’m just some guy that got caught up in whatever this is!”
Without thinking, Paul had stepped forward past Verity while his rage and confusion built. Throatripper seized the opportunity, hurling the struggling Reonh across the room at Verity, and pounced at Paul. A massive paw-like hand tipped in claws the size of daggers scooped Paul up, and the beast bounded past the gawking monster hunters and down the spiraling stairs. Paul was vaguely aware of curses and spells being hurled down after them, though nothing slowed their descent.
The lurching, black werewolf burst out into the square outside the keep and took a moment finally to survey his prize.
“You’ll make a fine offering to King Mardu, little morsel. Perhaps when he’s done with you, he’ll let me taste the blood of the line of Adhamh,” Throatripper salivated, slimy drops of spit running down onto Paul’s exposed face.
As Throatripper stood savoring his success, an earsplitting boom echoed from the top of the keep. Hunks of brick rained down as the wall of the hall they had just been standing in exploded outward. Paul saw his chance, and he managed to free his hand which miraculously still clung onto the silver sword. With the limited mobility he had in the grip of the werewolf, he attempted to stab the silver sword into the hand that held him. Throatripper let out a yelp as his hand spasmed in reaction to the blade, and Paul tumbled to the ground, barely avoiding impaling himself on the blade as well.
“What the devil? Silver!” the brute bellowed, eyes bulging at the blood that curdled from the wound on his hand.
From the hole left by the blast above them, a slim, robed figure floated into the air. Her tawny braids had come undone and her hair billowed out like fire as Verity descended like an angel of vengeance. Paul thought her face looked deeper, older even, as she landed gracefully in front of the towering mass of fur. She stretched out her hand, and the silver sword laying on the ground next to Paul flew to her palm.
Verity lept into the air to meet Bertrand Throatripper eye to eye, and shouted, “I name you with your true name, Bertrand Fearlin, son of Mortin. And I banish your soul from this realm.”
With a thrust, she plunged the blade of the silver sword into the werewolf’s chest. The hulking monster howled in fury and collapsed to the paving stones of the square, dead.
When Paul looked up at Verity, her hand outstretched to help him up, her face had returned to its girlish twinkle, and her hair laid naturally, if a bit messy, down her back.
Looking almost guilty, Verity confided, “I had intended to tell you after this hunt, but it seems some forces are now in motion which cannot be undone. Come, let us collect our companions and be rid of this place, and I will take you home. But suffice it to say, you are of great importance to this realm. If you will take up the task, I believe you have the purity of spirit to free this land from darkness.”
Paul hesitated, trying to wrap his mind around the weight of what she had said, “And if I refuse? What if I just want to go home and go back to my life?”
“If that is your choice,” Verity answered gravely, “I am sorry for what I had to put you through to get you here, but that decision is now in your hands alone. Regardless, I will tell all I can once we are safely in the shop. Then you may make whatever decision you deem right.”
Paul looked back at the keep and the monster hunters emerging from its doors. Somewhere, deep inside, he feared this was a path he would have to walk. But with the carnage he had witnessed in a few short hours fresh on his mind, he didn’t see how.