"I heard there's a Laok in town! Where is he?"
Velmar had just raised a frothing mug to his lips when the Dwarf entered. To a novice Laok, such words might've caused concern. A reach for one's weapon, the muttering of spells. But he'd been on the job long enough to tell the difference between a tone of fury and one of frustration.
It'd been a long week on the Republic Road. He'd been traveling the Serrac Valley and had stopped here in Sutter Falls in search of one more job before returning home. He thought of hiding, of moving to a corner booth. But his attire – a silver cuirass with a purple overcoat – would betray him as a member of his order. And as one of the only Orcs in the tavern, his size would do the same.
He sighed, set down his drink, and stood.
"Over here," he waved, feigning a smile.
The Dwarf greeted Velmar with a fist bump.
Well, he's definitely pissed. But at least he's not pissed at me!
"Have a seat," Velmar motioned to an empty chair across from him. "Care for a biscuit?"
The Dwarf shook his head.
"I've had enough food from this place for two lifetimes. But I could use your help," he turned to the other patrons, all of whom were watching with great curiosity. He then spoke with all the enthusiasm of a town crier. "Because that bastard Davek stole my horse!"
At once, the tavern's anxious silence became a rowdy din as those gathered cursed the name of the supposed horse thief.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he replied once the clamor died down a bit. "But that's quite an accusation. What makes you think Davek did it?"
"It's always him!" The Dwarf slammed his fist on the table. "If something goes wrong around here, you can bet he's behind it!"
"He set my cows loose!" cried one of the patrons, a blonde-haired human who'd followed the Dwarf into the tavern.
"He stole my grandma's shield!"
"He took a shit in my chimney!"
"Are you sure that wasn't Drunk Danny?"
"Danny's dead, it had to be him!"
Velmar walked around the table to stand beside the Dwarf. This had become about more than just one man's missing steed.
"Sounds like a troublesome fellow," Velmar addressed the crowd. "Has anyone tried to take care of this situation? Shown him some steel?"
"Oh, we have," said the Elven bartender as he dried a glass. "I threatened him with my crossbow about a year ago. The next morning, I woke up to the Sulban's men at my door."
"Sulban Lars?" Velmar raised an eyebrow. "What's he got to do with this jabronok?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," the Dwarf shrugged. "The name's Eustace, by the way."
"It's an honor, Eustace" they shook hands. "I'm Velmar Ahn'Vas. I've been a Master Laok for two years. And don't think finding your horse – or figuring out why your Sulban has a soft spot for the town troublemaker – will take very long at all."
After finishing his lunch, Velmar left the tavern. Ember, his Volper companion, lay curled up on the porch beside a bowl of treats. The small creature had cool grey fur, three antlers, two sharp fangs that extended past its chin, and a pair of wings that seemed too small for its body.
At the sight of its master, Ember shot into the air, wings fluttering rapidly. It held a small wooden bear between its paws, which it presented eagerly to its master.
"Come on now," Velmar chuckled. "Let's take this back to the kid you took it from."
Ember growled. It held up its right paw, its pads flashing bright blue. Velmar touched one gently, and a series of images flooded his view.
An Orc carpenter passed by the tavern. He spotted Ember, stopped to give him a few pets before heading home. About half an hour later, he returned with the toy.
"Alright. You can keep it. Just let me know when you want to play with it."
Ember tossed the toy to Velmar. He caught it, tucked it into his coat pocket.
"I have good news, boy. We have a job! Looks like we'll be heading back to The Oldest Bridge with ten pieces of Hearthwood after all."
Velmar tapped his left shoulder twice. Ember perched on it, and together they made their way for the village outskirts.
Though he loathed being interrupted during a meal, it was the moments of spontaneity that made him fall in love with his job. Laoks filled a variety of roles for the Seragorn Republic, but above all, they served the people. They traveled provinces, helping their fellow citizens however they could. In the last month alone, he'd settled a dispute between a Bonded couple, slayed a Basilisk, cured a noble of Blood Fatigue, and wrestled a neighborhood bully.
After a short walk, he reached his Drifter. One of the last remaining inventions of the Phatan'Era, it resembled a sleek, oval-shaped canoe. The Machinists of Alter'Fehras curated and gifted them to Laoks on the day they left to travel the Republic Road.
Velmar climbed inside, sat down behind the wheel, and retrieved a clear cylinder from a pouch on his belt. Inside, a handful of tiny amber crystals, each no larger than a seashell, jingled between the glass. Shards of Teznite – the mysterious gemstones the Phatan'Era used to fuel their strange inventions.
He pressed the cylinder into a grove to the right of the wheel, and the Drifter roared to life. Taking the wheel in one hand and the accelerator rod in the other, he sped off into the verdant countryside while Ember snuggled in his lap.
It didn't take long to reach Eustace's farmstead. Past the old tower and the windmill – just as the Dwarf had said. The property was impressive - easily among the largest he'd seen in travels through this part of Hibernok. A few fields of blood barley, two pens of blue sheep, a field of grazing goadur, a smattering of Pan'Heyla trees, and a stable large enough for several horses.
He parked outside the stable and climbed out of the Drifter as Ember fluttered beside him. Right away, he noticed many of the suspicious details Eustace had mentioned. The broken lock on the double doors, the open stall. He also spotted footprints. Two sets – a horse's and another that appeared to be the right size for an Elf.
"Ember, see what you can find."
On his master's command, the Volper flew around the stables, putting its superior senses to good use. After two and a half cycles around the stables, Ember landed beside a discarded pouch halfway between the entrance and the open stall. Velmar knelt beside his companion, gave him a few quick scratches behind the ears, and then picked up the pouch.
Brown, about the size of a handbag. Big enough to contain a few small items or a single large one, but not much else. He brought it up to his nose, sniffed it.
"Smells like grim plums to me. What do you think?" he held the bag out for Ember. It took a whiff, then nodded.
Eustace said this horse was fond of them. Davek came prepared.
After pocketing the pouch, Velmar followed the footsteps. Eustace had noticed them, said that he'd thought about following them but decided against it in light of his previous experiences with Davek.
"No sense in chasing down a man who's got the protection of our Sulban," he'd said. "But if you brought him in? Then he'd have to do something! You're a Laok, everyone has to listen to you!"
If only, Eustace. If only.
Velmar followed the tracks for roughly a quarter-hour – from the farmstead to the nearby woods and finally to a clearing. When he reached the open space, the distance between steps increased dramatically.
Davek started running. But why?
He stroked his beard, pondering the possibilities. Ember yelped, grabbing his master's attention. He fluttered above a spot a few feet from him, pointing down with his front paws. Velmar joined him and saw his companion was right to be alarmed. The tracks – both the Elf's and the horse's – died suddenly, as though they'd simply turned into ghosts in the midst of their escape.
"Well, they didn't disappear. Unless there's magic involved," he shook his head. "Ember, have a look around the clearing. See if they left anything behind."
Once more, the Volper leapt into action, combing the clearing in a circular pattern until he yelped again, summoning his master to a spot several yards away from where the tracks stopped, at a point where the clearing declined into a hill.
Blood. A pool of it, still wet. It looked to be but a few hours old, and it was blue – the sanguine color of the Elves. Finally, the pool gave way to a trail leading back into the woods. Velmar followed it, Ember at his side until a pained groan forced him to quicken his pace.
He found Davek laying atop a broken tree branch, his right leg snapped at the knee, shattered bones jutting out of his pale flesh like a misplaced sword on the battlefield. His eyes were nearly shut, and blood trickled down his cheek from a gash on his forehead.
Velmar rushed to his side, his fingertips growing yellow as he channeled a healing spell.
"Tell Eustace," Davek muttered. "It was worth it."
"I have good news and bad news."
The crowd at the tavern had swelled, drawn by the tale of Velmar's mission.
"Well," Eustace sighed. "Let's start with the bad news."
"Davek's dead. I tried to heal him, but it was too late."
A stunned silence fell over the tavern as those gathered made eyes at each other. Eustace broke it, a fresh tankard of beer in hand.
"Did ya hear that, my friends? Davek's dead! Davek's dead at last!" he sounded as though his favorite team had just won the Kathann Cup.
The patrons erupted in a raucous celebration that lasted for the next ten minutes, oblivious to Velmar and the work he had left to do. Never before had he heard so many expletives shouted in such a joyous fashion. Outside of a bedroom, anyway.
Once the revelry died down, Eustace embraced Velmar and shoved a bottle of beer into his hand.
"Good work, Laok!"
Velmar nodded and smiled, toasted him, then took a long, well-deserved drink.
"If that's the bad news, then I can't wait to hear the good news!" Eustace laughed.
"Right – about that," he replied, pointing with the bottle. "I know what happened to your horse. It was taken by a Gistayip – the same beast that killed Davek."
Velmar made an effort to sound as calm as possible. He doubted the average farmer had ever heard of such a creature.
"A what now?" Eustace nearly went cross-eyed. "That's the good news? You've got your priorities mixed up."
"Think of it as a gorilla with claws and wings," he explained. "Fortunately, they don't eat meat. Give me a few hours, and I'll have your horse back home, safe and sound."
Eustace scratched his stubbly chin and shrugged.
"Well, why else would it take my horse?"
The question had been on Velmar's mind since he surveyed Davek's wounds. They painted a clear picture – only a Gistayip could've taken the thief and the horse with such ease and delivered the unique punctures found on the former's body. Gistayips, Blessed Beasts of Zalandros, were thought to be relatively simple creatures. They were not mischievous like the Guuvero or benevolent like the Aciprae. Why, then, would it steal a horse?
"I'm not sure," Velmar twirled his beard braid. "I've never heard of a Gistayip acting like this."
"I'll await her safe return. But, in the meantime, I owe you a piece of Hearthwood."
"Not until the job is done," Velmar cut the air.
"Nonsense. This one's on me. You've earned it," said Mirol, the Orc tavernkeeper, standing at the Sacred Heath.
No matter how big or small, every building in the Republic had a Sacred Hearth. Carved from the trunk of a Deos Tree, the flame inside was said to burn forever. Laoks collected pieces of Hearthwood, cut from the sprawling branches that formed the hearth's mantle, as proof of a job well done.
It felt wrong – he'd done nothing but find a dying man who everyone hated – but Velmar knew better than to refuse payment.
Mirol sliced off a piece and tossed it to him from across the bar. Velmar snagged it, thanked him, and stuffed the smooth white wood into his coat pocket.
"I'll give you another when your work is done," Eustace patted him on the shoulder.
"I'll get to work, then. But jobs involving Blessed Beasts are usually handled by local officials.
"Ah, Sulban Lars. Wonder how he'll take the news," said Mirol.
"He did everything he could to protect that bastard!" Eustace cried. "Davek must've had something on Lars. I'm sure of it!"
Velmar finished his beer, and slid the empty bottle across the bar.
"Something tells me that won't be too hard to figure out. For another piece of Hearthwood."
Someone needed to deliver word of Davek's passing to his next of kin. Velmar prided himself on shouldering this solemn duty, but in light of the Gistayip's bizarre behavior, he decided to pass the grim business into other hands.
Eustace directed him to the nearest Emissary of the Gods – the holy men of the Divine Tapestry. There, he found an Elven priest who told him that Davek left behind a wife, a fellow Elf named Jenna, and a young son. Despite his faults, it seemed he was lucky enough to enjoy many of the pleasures fate had denied so many others.
Then again, Velmar knew he shouldn't have been so surprised. He'd once apprehended a murderer whose mother tried desperately to prove his innocence, even as the blood of his latest victim dripped from his fingers. It reminded him of a line from the Saga of the Divines, spoken by the Selerian, the Spring Queen:
Everyone is loved by someone, no matter their sins.
Beyond his family, Davek has one other supporter – Sulban Lars, who had apparently turned a blind eye to the troublesome Elf's actions for some time. When asked about a link between the two, the priest said he was unaware of one but did mention that Davek lived in an estate of considerable size outside of town, not far from the Sulban's keep. He added that while he'd never heard Davek talk about his job, he never seemed to want for anything.
This left Velmar full of questions as he stood before Sulban Lars. As eager as he was to earn another piece of Hearthwood, he was even more interested to see if his mysterious connection to Davek would reveal itself.
"If there's a Gistayip in my lands," said Lars. He was a Dwarf with a bald head and a clean shaved face. He appeared to be no older than forty – young for his species. "Then I want its head on my wall. It'd look great right there."
He pointed to the mantle above his Sacred Hearth, where the skulls of several beasts loomed over a sitting room. Their bleached, withered bones suggested they'd been killed long before Lars had ever held an axe.
"I am a Laok, your lordship. Not a monster slayer."
"What the difference?"
Velmar loathed this question. Wherever he went, people mistook him for a common beast hunter. But few misunderstood the purpose of a Laok more than the nobles and statesmen he so often served.
"A Gistayip is a Blessed Beast. A creature left behind by the Gods before the Exodus. To kill one without cause would incur the wrath of Zalandros."
"You can shoot fire and lightning from your fingers, yet you fear the Gods?" Lars scoffed.
"All the more reason to give them the respect they deserve. I will not kill the Gistayip unless I have no other option," he said firmly,
"It stole a horse! Is that not enough?"
He said nothing about Davek, despite granting him immunity and propping him up in a mansion. Whatever Davek had on him, it must be good.
"I need to know why it did this."
"It probably got hungry! It's probably shitting out bones right now!"
Velmar suppressed a groan.
Always the experts, these politicians.
"Gistayips are plant eaters. Something else is going on here."
"Maybe it's a rare breed!"
"Wouldn't that be something," Velmar forced a smile. "So, I'll handle the Gistayip and bring back Eustace's horse. Do we have a deal?
Lars leaned forward his his throne.
"What do you mean you'll handle it?"
"If it's made its lair too close to your lands, I'll force it to leave. If Eustace's horse is still alive, then-"
"And what if it's dead?"
Velmar paused, considering the possibility.
"Then I'll do what must be done."
Lars looked to his trophies, his fingers rapping against the armrest, before responding with an enthusiastic nod.
After leaving the keep, Velmar found Ember in the courtyard, playing with an Elven boy wearing a pale grey robe and a crown of lilies. As he chased Ember between hedges and statues, an Elven woman dressed in the same manner watched as Lars' guards unloaded her belongings from the back of a cart.
Grey robes? Crowns of lilies? Those are Elven clothes of mourning. So that has to be Jenna, Davek's wife. And the boy must be. . .
The thought was so alarming that Velmar nearly fell. But a closer look confirmed his suspicions. The boy's eyes were different colors – one blue, one yellow — a rare trait. But common among those born to interspecies unions.
Velmar looked back at the keep, another line from the Saga on his mind.
Geora, Thane of the Highest Mountain, Patron of All Dwarves, shall suffer not the adulterer, for he knows the pain of this gross betrayal better than most.
He searched for half an hour before Ember caught the Gistayip's scent. Ember led him to a lake, where the surrounding trees showed clear signs of its presence, as huge chunks of bark – a staple of the Gistayip diet – had been ripped from them. One of the more curious things about Gistayip behavior was their preference for variety. Fortunately, the surrounding area offered an abundance of options – elder oak, stained birch, and stone willows.
Velmar left his Drifter at the shore, climbed the highest elder oak he could find, and used his monocular to pinpoint his distance from Sutter Falls. He was quite far from it now, well beyond what constituted Lars' lands.
The Gistayip flew a long way before it found Davek and Eustace's horse. Why did it stray so far from its lair?
He climbed down from the tree, then continued to track the Gistayip's scent with Ember's help. Up a hill they went until it leveled out into a plateau where downed trees were stacked on top of each other like pieces of a crudely made log cabin, reaching up about a foot or so above him and forming the walls of an enclosure. Two piles of stones arranged into a clumsy statue-like construct that many theorized to be an homage to their divine father. The telltale signs of a Gistayip's domain It was just as the textbooks described it – aside from one glaring detail.
Four crab-like creatures, impaled on a series of spikes, decorated the path leading up to the entrance of the enclosure. It seemed to be a gesture almost mortal in nature, no different than a tyrant adorning their battlements with macabre trophies.
"Arkkan. Demons of Huulvorat – the mortal enemy of Zalandros, father of the Gistayips."
Just as this job was beginning to make sense to him, a howl from above put him on the defensive. He knew better than to draw his weapon – that'd only ensure a conflict – so he stepped back, spell at the ready. The Gistayip circled overhead, then landed, draping its front paws over the walls of the enclosure like a cat on the edge of a sofa.
He'd encountered several Gistayips before, but still, he found their appearance to be nothing short of remarkable. It had the head and body of a gorilla with orange fur. Four moth-like wings, large enough to support its massive frame, sprouted from its back. Its four legs were sinewy and bowed, and its claws were as long as broadswords.
It reared back, then roared right in Velmar's face.
"Ember," Velmar said softly, trying his best to stay still. "Tell it why we're here."
It was a tactic that had failed him more times than he cared to remember. But it was always worth the effort. Small, unimposing, and Blessed Beasts themselves, Volpers had a knack for communicating with their kin in a way that a Laok simply could not.
Ever daring, Ember flew into the Gistayip's view and presented its shimmering paws. The Gistayip raised an arm, its claws drawn. Velmar prepares himself, lightning leaping between his fingertips. But to the Laok's relief, the Gistayip stared at Ember's paws intently before letting out a confused yelp.
For the next five minutes, Ember and the Gistayip engaged in what could only be described as a negotiation. Ember would display a series of palm-lights, the Gistayip would respond with a curious cry, and Ember would answer once more. This continued until the Volper returned to Velmar, nuzzling his master happily as the Gistayip retracted its claws and bowed its head – a universal sign of respect among Blessed Beasts.
Velmar returned the gesture, then entered the enclosure. Inside, the creature had made several beds of leaves – preparing for mating season, he surmised. Eustace's horse rested upon one of them, laying on its side and moaning softly. He knelt at its side and took note of its pale complexion. Just above one of its rear hooves, Velmar found a wound several inches deep and dripping with gobs of green puss.
"Poisoned by an Arkkan." He looked over his shoulder at the Gistayip. "How did you know?"
Still serving as translator, Ember relayed his master's inquiry. The Gistayip pointed to its left arm and growled spitefully.
"Happened to you too, didn't it? When you were younger?"
"I'm amazed that you smelled the poison from so high up. You must've killed a ton of Arkkan in your day!"
The Gistayip roared proudly.
"Well, you had the right idea. But a Beast as big as you can afford to wait things out and let the poison run its course. A few days of good food and plenty of water will do the trick. But horses don't have that luxury. Without proper treatment, it will die."
It lowered its head, eyes sullen.
"Don't worry. We have enough time to save the horse. But once it's better, I'm going to need you to help me find the Arkkan that did this."
It took Velmar just a few minutes to brew up a potion and administer it to the horse. He stayed at its side for two hours, watching it closely as the Gistayip returned the favor. Like a parent hawking over their child, it examined Velmar's every move, even going so far as to sniff the potion.
The Gistayip's behavior continued to surprise Velmar. Some called them "protectors of the forest," but that was in reference to how they defended their kin and the Sacred Effigies of their creation. They were not known to extend such protection to random animals who entered their purview. Either this Gistayip was indeed a rare breed, as Lars had suggested, or it truly hated the Arkkan.
It wasn't long before Velmar got his answer. Once the horse was resting peacefully, the Gistayip told Velmar, through Ember, that he found the Arkkan's lair in a cave halfway between the lake and the clearing where it had first spotted Davek and the poisoned horse. It also threw in an order that it repeated several times.
"Kill every last one. If you don't, then I'll kill you, Orc."
Velmar promised to hold up his end of the bargain, then returned to his Drifter. He found the lair quickly; it was right where the Gistayip said it would be. Standing at the mouth of the cave, Velmar wondered if the simplest way of dealing with this problem was also the best one. But a discarded signpost with the words "Billy's house" written on it – large and misspelled – told him otherwise.
"An ogre used to live here," he sighed. "Hope it survived. But they're territorial Beasts. I doubt it just packed up and left."
When I'm finished, it can be a home for another ogre. No collapsing the cave, then. I'll have to do this the hard way.
"Ember, scout ahead. I need to know what I'm walking into."
As eager as ever, Ember shot into the blackness of the cave. Volpers could see in the dark, making them uniquely skilled at reconnaissance. While Ember did his work, Velmar prepared. He donned his MagiSpecs, a pair of glasses with blue lenses that allowed him to see the cave as clearly as his companion, and readied his Gorann battle axe – a trick weapon favored by many Laoks. On the hilt, there was a button that extended the handle to pole length, instantly transforming it into a two-handed weapon with far greater reach.
For now, he kept it in its one-handed form. He'd fought Arkkan before and always needed to dive deep into his repertoire of spells to defeat them. He expected no different this time around.
Ember returned in a few minutes to show Velmar what he'd seen.
A twisting tunnel leading to a wide cavern. An Arkkan Broodfather. Young, no more than a few hundred years old, flanked by a pair of smaller Arkkan, both with bulbous, low-hanging bellies. His mates, no doubt. Encircling the three of them is a colony of small crustaceans. Among them, surely, the one who infected the horse. Row upon row of egg sacks, green with a layer of white webbing overtop them.
"Good work, Ember," he scratched it behind the ears. "Take cover. I'll call you if I need you."
Ember nuzzled him, then perched on a tree branch overlooking the cave entrance. Then, with his axe in his right hand and magic cackling between the fingers of his left, Velmar stepped inside.
He moved carefully, slowly, until he could see the wide cavern where the Arkkan made their den. With two fingers doused in dancing green magic, he drew a rectangle from one end of the tunnel to the other. The cave rumbled slightly until a trench, about six feet deep, formed in front of him.
Laoks controlled the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. He anticipated using each one in this battle. The Broodfather chittered at his children, and in a great stampede of shells and pincers, they charged in Velmar's direction. They buzzed at him, low and angry, but in their haste to attack, they fell right into the trench. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty – more than Velmar could count, a sea of crustaceans piled on top of each other as they tried desperately to escape their doom.
Velmar raised his left hand above his head, a fireball channeling in his palm, and slammed it down. The flames spread through the trench, engulfing every trapped Arkkan until their death cries echoed through the cave. The smell that followed reminded Velmar of broiled crab, but it was not long before the smoke scorched his eyes, and the smell of melting bone nearly made him retch.
As their cries grew louder, a piercing howl cut through them. Their mothers were on their way.
He about-faced, and sprinted down the tunnel until he exited into daylight. He waved to Ember, then crouched behind a large rock. There he waited, axe extended, for their arrival.
He heard them wail at the sight of their slaughtered young, and listened as their sorrow turned to rage. As their furious steps grew louder, Velmar ran his fingers across the gemstone in the center of his axe, coating the weapon in streams of lightning that bounced between the edges.
Ember growled, telling Velmar they'd nearly arrived. Just as they left the cave, he leapt from the top of the rock, axe overhead, and chopped down on the head of the nearest mate. The blade split her between the eyes, blood squirting in two geysers. Streams of lightning surged through her corpse, and she died without so much as a whimper.
The second mate flanked him; he ripped out his weapon and pointed it at her. Blue, cackling lightning shot from the axe's edge, striking her in the mouth. She flailed, lightning ricocheting across her body before she crumpled into a heap.
Velmar retracted the pole, wiped purple blood from his face and jacket. He gave Ember a quick nod, then weaved between the fallen mates to reenter the cave.
Now, only the Broodfather remained.
He spun his axe in one hand, an orb of water coiling in the other. He stepped over the trench, now just a smoldering pot of crustaceans, a giant's overcooked breakfast, and approached the main cavern. Inside, he could see the Broodfather leering at him with twelve yellow eyes, pincers snapping in furious anticipation.
Velmar tossed the water orb to the ground. For a moment, it foamed before forming into a four-armed elemental. On his command, it charged. Meanwhile, he waited, expecting the Broodfather to counter with an attack of its own, one he could counter for a quick finish.
But it made no such move. Instead, it simply raised a single pincer and pointed at the elemental. Then, from behind it came a wave of shells, speeding onwards.
He did not know where this second burst of spawn had come from – perhaps they'd been out in the field and returned at their father's behest, or maybe the creature had simply been clever enough to keep some of its forces in reserve. Regardless, it worked, as they made short work of the elemental, bursting straight through its chest in a spear-like formation.
Unprepared, Velmar watched helplessly as they enveloped him all the way up to his neck. He tried to fling them off, but it was no use – the spawn had a firm grip on him, weighing him down like a statue.
The Broodfather let out a deep, satisfied howl – something like a cackle – and closed in on the captured Laok, its pincers clicking rapidly as it prepared to finish off its prey.
But before it could strike, something yelped from above. Ember flew into the cave, clutching a stone between its paws, and dropped it like a Dwarven bomb, striking the Broodfather in one of its eyes. It shook its head, stunned, then turned its attention to the Volper, who was now flying in circles around the cavern. He swung at him, wild and high, like a grandmother trying to slay a bee with a ladle.
A quick distraction – but the opening Velmar needed.
He looked to where the elemental had fallen and saw that a large puddle remained. He focused on it, his eyes glowing until the water rose up in a great stream that knocked the Arkkan spawn from his body.
Just as he broke free, the Broodfather, having given up on catching Ember, took a swing at him. He ducked and slammed the ground with his open palm. A wave of lightning shot out in a circle around him, stunning the Broodfather once more and electrocuting the spawn who'd survived the deluge.
Again, the Broodfather recovered quickly. It opened its pincer for another strike, but the Laok met it at the joint with a fist of flame. The creature wailed as its pincer split in two, flames burning deep into its shell. Seizing the opportunity, Velmar hacked at the Broodfather's arm. Once, twice, three times –until came off in a torrent of violet blood.
Yet still, the wounded Broodfather pressed on, attacking with its remaining limb in desperate jabs. Velmar dodged each one until, at last, he aimed his open palm at it and unleashed a steady stream of orange flame that engulfed it completely, cooking it alive inside its shell.
As the smell of charred crustacean filled the cave for the second time, Velmar sat on a nearby rock, breathing heavily. He surveyed his injuries. Many of the Arkkan spawn had dug straight through his coat, peppering his arms, legs, and chest with tiny punctures.
"Thanks for the assist, Ember," Velmar smiled. It landed in his lap, purring loudly. "Look at this mess. Eustace is lucky I like horses."
The Laoks of the Seragorn Republic was governed by a strict set of rules. They were not the Officers Militant of Remi, nor the Voledrune of Dunkaal, who operated with impunity.
Never kill a Blessed Beast without cause. If forced to do so, ask their patron god for forgiveness. Honor the Divine Tapestry, but the Elemental Circle most of all. Anyone who deals with demons forsakes their fellowship. And always leave the world just as you found it. Or, as his master Osiren had said – if you make a mess, you better clean it up.
After catching his breath, Velmar began the painstaking work of removing the corpses from the cave and depositing them by the lakeshore, where he'd parked his Drifter. His magic made the job easier, for he was able to levitate and move them, but still, it was quite the task. Not until the sun started to descend, turning the sky above Sutter Falls to a vibrant orange, did he finish his work.
A pile of Arkkan corpses burned behind him as he returned to his Drifter. He was rummaging through his supply bag, intending to brew up an Urnroot potion to restore his magical energies, when a party of considerable size appeared at the edge of the woods.
"Looks like Lars. Let's hope he likes his gift."
To the back of his Drifter, he'd attached his trophy – the Broodfather's severed head. Velmar rarely collected such things. Though some Laoks boasted of their impressive trophy rooms, he found the practice to be an exercise in arrogance. He took no pleasure in killing Remnants, Blessed Beasts, or Demons – only relief that he'd survived the counter. But Lars had demanded the Gistayip's head, and thus he decided to bring back what he hoped would be a suitable replacement.
Lars and his entourage, twelve in all, came to a halt and formed a semi-circle around Velmar. All Dwarves, dressed in Republic armor and riding Adecon Rams.
"That's some fire, Laok," Lars said, pointing to the blaze.
"Good to see you, Lars. This proved to be quite the job."
"I hope you remembered to save the head."
"The Gistayip was never at fault. It took the horse because it was poisoned. By this," Velmar held up the trophy.
"What in Octavarius is that?"
"An Arkkan Broodfather. It's all yours."
He tossed the severed head between them; it landed in the grass with a dull thud. Lars craned his neck, surveying it closely.
"Never been fond of crabs," he scoffed. "I want the Gistayip," he barked, slowly and deliberately. An order.
"There's no need."
"Not even for another piece of Hearthwood?"
"I told you already. They're Blessed Beasts. To kill one without cause would-"
"Incur the wrath of the Divines? I couldn't care less about them."
"Oh, I know!"
Velmar smirked. He'd had enough of Lars; of his demands, of his refusal to respect his professional boundaries. Lars' eyes narrowed for a moment, then exploded to the size of small planets. His mouth became a wide, quivering cavern.
"Did you really think no one would notice Davek's wife moving into your keep? Or that her son is half-Dwarf?" Lars continued to quake, his face bright red. "No wonder you've been covering for Davek all these years. You knew that if you did what you should've done, what a real Sulban would do, then he'd tell everyone you've been knocking boots with his wife. And who would vote for a Dwarf who can't even honor Geora's most sacred commandment?"
"Enough!" Lars roared. He drew his sword, pointed it at Velmar. "You're under arrest!"
"First you blaspheme, now you break Republic law? Only the Arkresh can arrest a Laok!"
"Then I'll bring him your corpse! Have at him, boys!"
Lars' entourage drew their weapons. A mix of spears, axes, and maces, all paired with great shields. Eleven Republic warriors against a single Laok. He'd starred down worse odds. But he had no interest in killing these men, only in defeating their commander.
If Lars falls, I bet they'll surrender. Only one way to find out.
Velmar clapped his hands together. A column of stone rose from beneath Lars' ram. It bucked to get out of the way, dumping its rider in the process. Lars hit the ground hard, screaming and reaching for his back. Two warriors turned, rushed to their commander's side, while the others advanced
Velmar drew his axe, then tossed a fireball that exploded in front of four warriors on his left flank, sending three flying and stunning the one who held his ground. He then turned to his attention right flank, where the other five had formed a shield wall. Onward they moved, their weapons concealed behind the bulwark.
Velmar aimed at the shield wall, lightning coiling between his fingers. Over the cackling magic, he heard a faint yelp – Lars, he assumed. When the spell was ready, he tossed it to the centermost shield. The warriors howled as jagged blue streams danced between them, forcing them to break formation.
There's my opening!
But before he could begin his attack, he heard another yelp, much louder than the first. This time, he recognized the source – it was Ember, warning him.
Velmar turned around just in time to see the largest warrior in Lars' party charging at him with his head low, shoulder pauldron pointed like a spear. The attack knocked Velmar backward and sent him straight into a hammer blow.
The first strike made him scream, his back spasming as it vibrated against his armor. The second dropped him to his knees, and the third forced him to the ground. His vision dazed; he saw only the tip of a sword just inches from his face.
"He's mine!" Lars cried. "Hold him still!"
His world spun as a warrior yanked him to his feet and wrapped his thick arms around his neck.
"Such arrogance," Lars shook his head. "Did you really think you could kill all of us?"
The warriors, most of whom had recovered, formed a circle around them. Between Lars and the warrior behind him, Velmar could see his Drifter. An escape; an angel calling to him through fog.
I have to reach my Drifter. It's the only way out of here. Lars was right – it was foolish to try and fight them all on my own.
I need a distraction. Something to get his attention so I can cast a quick spell and get out of here.
Where's Ember? He saved me back in the cave. He may need to do so again.
"You left me no choice!" Velmar mumbled.
"You should've done as I asked!"
"What will you do when Sutter Falls finds out about Jenna? What about your love child? You're not some Claudian lord. You'll be up for election in, what, two years from now? The people won't forget your infidelity – if they haven't run you out of town by then."
"They'll never find out. They'll never find you, either," the tip of his blade scratched Velmar's throat. With a single slice, Lars could end it all.
Ember, where in Octavarius are you?
He scanned the lakeshore, but his Volper was nowhere to be found.
Did they catch him too? Divines, if you'll do nothing else for me, please, at least spare him. I have to find him. I won't let you die for my mistakes, boy.
Velmar seized the arm around his neck, focused all the energy he could muster into a single spell. But only puny, impotent flames flickered at his fingertips. The barely warm coals of a dying campfire. Good enough to singe a few hairs, nothing more.
He was out of magic. Without proper rest or an Urnroot potion, he could cast no more. He hadn't expected to need to use so much magic so soon after his fight with the Arkkan. If he had, he'd have whipped up an Urnroot after slaying the Broodfather, long before Lars had interrupted him. A rookie mistake, he chided himself. A fatal mistake.
"What's the matter, Laok? Have the Divines abandoned you?" Lars cackled.
A growl from above broke his laughter. His expression shifted at once – from that of a man on the precipice of his greatest victory to a child who'd just soiled their drawers in the marketplace. Heavy winds kicked up around them, rustling the leaves, as Lars looked up to see the Blessed Beast he'd so desperately wanted Velmar to kill. The Gistayip circled above them, beating its wings at a steady pace until it landed a short distance from the fray. Ember leapt from the Gistayip's head and flew to his master's side.
"Not at all, Lars. Can you say the same?" Velmar smirked.
With terrifying speed, the Gistayip snatched up the nearest warrior, hurled him into the air, and punched him with such ferocity that he became a shower of blood and shattered bone. Then, he picked up another, squished his head between two talons, and chucked what remained of the body at Lars, flooring him. Like an overturned turtle, Lars flailed helplessly, cursing at Velmar as he tried to push the corpse off him.
The warriors shrieked and ran in all directions like ants fleeing the fist of an angry child. As soon as he felt his captor loosen his grip, Velmar pulled down on the warrior's arm, brought it up again and tucked his head beneath it, then spun around and kicked him square in the mouth. The warrior fell back, clutching his jaw, as Velmar raced for his Drifter, where Ember was waiting for him.
He leapt into the driver's seat, inserted the Teznite cylinder, and sped off into the darkening forest. As he drove, he thought to himself that only a Laok could've had a day like this. A Warden would've found Davek's body and stopped right there. A Hunter would've taken Lars' deal and killed the Gistayip without a second thought. Neither of them would've discovered the Arkkan or uncovered Lars' secret. And they surely wouldn't have cared about the impact such a revelation would have on the people of Sutter Falls.
By the time he'd reached the Gistayip's domain, night had fully fallen. Inside, he could hear the steady snoring of Eustace's horse. He was pleased to find that it'd made considerable progress since he'd been gone. Tomorrow, he'd take it back to Eustace. He looked forward to seeing him. The man was fine company, and he couldn't wait to tell him about Lars, Jenna, and their love child. Finally, the people of Sutter Falls would no longer have to wonder why their Sulban had such a soft spot for the village troublemaker.
Minutes later, the Gistayip soared overhead, circled once around the domain, and then landed right beside Velmar.
"You have my thanks," the Laok bowed.
The Gistayip gently approached him, its head low, like a cat awaiting affection. Velmar scratched it behind the ears as it purred softly.
"Did Lars survive?"
The Gistayip growled.
"Don't worry. It's better off that way. But you need to be careful. You should leave here as soon as you can before Lars sends someone after you."
It looked around its domain, then nodded sorrowfully.
"But he was right about one thing," Velmar smiled. The Gistayip looked back at him with wide, curious eyes. "You are indeed a special beast."
"So you're telling me that Davek let Lars plow his wife in exchange for the freedom to be a massive jabronok with no consequences?"
Eustace leaned against the side of his barn, holding out a carrot for his horse – now healthy and home at last.
"Well, I doubt it was an official arrangement. I don't think they signed a contract or anything." Velmar chuckled. "But yes, that's the sum of it."
He'd told Eustace everything. About his meeting with Lars, his encounter with Jenna, finding the Gistayip, fighting the Arkkan, and his standoff with the furious Sulban. When he'd finished his tale, Eustace sent one of his field hands inside to retrieve another piece of Hearthwood.
"Let's hope Lars has learned his lesson," Eustace sighed. "Good work, Laok. You've earned this Hearthwood. May it remind you that the people of Sutter Falls – the true people of Sutter Falls – are grateful for all of your help."
"Spoken like a future Sulban," they shook hands.
Eustace raised an eyebrow.
"Someone has to run against Lars," Velmar patted him on the shoulder. "Why not you?"
"No chance," Eustace scoffed. "I'd be a terrible politician."
"Couldn't be worse than Lars!"
Eustace shrugged, a smirk buried beneath his burly beard.
Velmar left Sutter Falls the following evening, but not before dining with Eustace and a few other villagers. They held their small gathering in the basement of Eustace's farmhouse. Word had gotten around that Lars had ordered his guards to look for Velmar, so made sure to keep it quiet.
When he, at last, returned to the Republic Road, he couldn't help but be reminded of something Osiren had told him long ago, back when he was a Junior Laok:
"Sparing a Blessed Beast will not earn you the favor of a Sulban, a Senator, or anyone else who sits on a throne. But it will show those who sit on stools that you are a man of understanding and the Divines that you are one of patience. And that is far more valuable than any lord's gold."