The man ran for his life.
Tattered clothes and tattered flesh tore with his every jerking movement. Ribbon-thin cuts crisscrossed his back and arms, spraying droplets of blood with every desperate step. His breath was hot and harsh in his throat as he pounded up the narrow mountain trail. The view was spectacular, but to the man it was a blur in the background. All that mattered was getting away. In the distance were wonders, rocks that hung suspended in space, huge beasts that flew, mountains shrined in clouds and vast green valleys far below. But none of it drew the eye of this lone man as he ran.
Shriek, shriek. Jagged metal dragging against jagged metal. He… it… was closing in. It never stopped coming. The Slayer was more than relentless. It was unreal, an impossibility barely contained in human... human-like, form. It was unbearable for the man to go any faster, but that didn't stop him from trying. He had tried to reason with the Slayer. It had sent him flying across a clearing with bone-crushing backhand. He had tried to escape it, but it in had homed in on him inexorably, unerringly. He had begged for mercy.
With a contemptuous flick of its wrist, it had taken his eye.
Shriek, shriek. Again. It was getting closer. The man dragged his hand across his bloodied face, cleaning the sweat and blood from his last good eye, the left. The loss of his right eye was crippling and nauseating. He was as likely to stumble upon the path and plummet to his death.
A part of him ached to, to embrace the cool mercy of death from the uncertain agonies that he would no doubt suffer if he allowed the Slayer to catch him. Knowing that a single misstep would be his death, he still ran as fast as he dared.
The path was growing narrower... startlingly so. The mountainside on his right grew more precarious, and the path forced him against the passage wall for fear of losing his footing. He felt his head swim and nearly pitched off the side into the hungry abyss below. His hand caught on the brambles and... he stopped. There had been no brambles before. But now the path and the adjacent wall were thick with them, and growing thicker as they burst from the puckered ground like a cancer.
The man choked out a noise. It was a breath, hardly a word, stripped of hope. The man turned around. The Slayer was there.
It was taller than the man, but thinner, its taut muscles chiseled against too-gaunt flesh. It moved with a languid, easy grace. It was garbed in a breastplate, but the details were hard to focus on. It was like copper, but it glinted like dark obsidian, that somehow absorbed and distorted light instead of reflecting it. Hanging from its shoulders was something like a bloody cape, or a robe so cut and tattered that it had become so. In its left mailed hand, it held a broken sword, the tip snapped off and so old and worn that jagged gaps ran across the blade, notching the dirty blade like a saw.
In its bare right hand, was a jagged and razor-sharp dagger. Both glistened with the man's blood.
But the worst was the face. An impassive metal mask that held luminous opal-black eyes accentuated by spirals and scrollwork. Maddening spirals that seemed to shift without beginning or end. And nothing seemed to hold the mask in place - it was as though it were stamped into the creature's very face and fused with its flesh. All that was visible of the creature's features were the tips of its ears, barely peeking through the filthy tangle of its hair.
It sharpened the dagger across the sword. Shriek, shriek. It was coming for him.
The brambles tore at his legs and pulled at his arms, but the man didn't care. He was like an animal stripped of all reason, prey that knew its death was coming no matter whether it ran or fought or screamed. He pushed through the tangle and it tore at his flesh, at his already numerous wounds, flayed the tattered remains of his shirt from his shoulders and tore strips from his legs. He burst around the corner and saw the trail dead-ended into a clearing. He had reached the end. He fell to his hands and knees. He waited for death.
It did not come. For a moment, he felt a wild thrill of hope as he dared to turn. Hope that turned to poison in an instant. The creature was standing at the edge of the clearing considering him. It tossed the sword point-first into the stone at its feet, where it penetrated and stuck as easily as if in soft earth. The creature flexed and unfurled its mailed hand, the fingers tipped with sharp metal claws. In his hyper-vigilant state, the man realized that each movement of the hand was accompanied by sound, like the clicking of insects. It seemed to be considering something as it flexed the menacing clawed gauntlet, then straightened it out to point at the sword.
It wanted him to pick it up. The man stared at the creature blankly, injury and exhaustion and sickness all weighing against each other to see what would fell him first. He looked towards the creature and the sword, and the cliff face, and considered taking the easier option. The cliff would be quick, it would be clean, and then the merciful darkness...
"No!" the man screamed, and something inside him broke and unfurled like the wrath of kings. For hours, days it seemed, this creature had hunted him, tormented and tortured him, seemingly without purpose beyond its own amusement. And now it wanted to make further sport of him. He would not die like this. With a strength born of madness, the man hurled himself at the sword and pulled it from the stone in a burst of sparks. He threw himself at the creature in a fury, hammering down blow after blow with all his strength.
But it was fruitless. Some swings it dodged, a barely perceptible twist here, a side-step there. Some it deflected, pushing aside the sword with gauntleted hand, blocking with the dagger, which seemed fixed like stone for all its small size against the sword. And the last it took straight into the chest, the blade passing through the breastplate almost without resistance! It fell to its knees.
The man fell backwards in surprise, landing on his rear, staring up at the nightmare with dumb shock. It bowed its head limply, dark blood running down the sword like tar. He had not expected the sword to even touch the creature, it had seemed so impervious to his attacks. It was almost like the creature had allowed the strike to slip through, unchallenged. He leaned in to examine it.
The Slayer's bare hand whipped up to meet him, wrapping around the man's throat and jerking him off the ground as the creature rose to its feet. With a flick of the wrist it sent him flying, tumbling through the air with impossible strength. The man cartwheeled into a heap at the edge of the cliff face, and found himself staring hundreds... thousands of feet to the chasm below.
There was a wet, ripping sound. Barely conscious, the man turned to see the Slayer remove the blade from its chest, unconcerned by the gaping wound or the shrieking of metal against metal as the blade dragged against the breastplate. And indeed, there was no wound, and the hole in the breastplate closed together with metallic complaint. It snapped the sword with contempt and tossed the weapon aside. Its empty hand made the barest of gestures, and the man was pulled to his feet like a puppet on a string. It could have taken him at any time. Any time it chose.
"Damn... you." The man was barely conscious. His left arm was pulled in front of his body. The man had the barest of moments to realize when the creature brought the knife upwards with a flick of its wrist and cleanly severed the man's arm practically at the elbow.
The pain was beyond belief, and the man rolled and wailed with agony. Perversely, the creature joined him, wailing an inhuman wail as it sawed steadily through its own gauntleted left arm. The man saw the limb fall twitching as his consciousness failed.
Pulse. Light. The man rallied back against the gushing blood loss coming from his arm to see the figure standing opposite him in the clearing. It was considering its left arm. Flexing it, clenching it, turning it this way and that. On its bare wrist was a tell-tale glint of polished metal, something strange and yet familiar. Something that did not belong in this place, but known to him.
The silver bangle that had been around his wrist.
His arm. The creature was wearing the man's arm as if it were its own! Its own mailed arm lay at its feet, not something of flesh and blood, he realized, but solid metal, like a piece of armor. The Slayer picked it up, considered it with contempt, and then coldly threw it over the cliff's edge. The man did not resist when the creature picked him up by the scruff of his neck.
It did not even register when he went over the edge, the figure rapidly becoming tiny. As it rushed away, his shocked mind fixated on one single surreal detail. The silver band, sitting on the creature’s arm, glinting in the morning sun.
The wind rushed in his ears, and he plummeted into darkness. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Days passed. Vultures and other carrion predators approached the corpse, but shied away upon closer inspection, sensing a taint of unnaturalness around it. Within days, the harsh mountainous winds began to strip the flesh of the corpse away. Within a year, all that was left were bones, bleached white under the bright cold skies.
Seasons turned. From its vantage point, the empty eye sockets bore witness to a distant structure. Years turned to decades, and still the skull lay, watching the silent cycle of snowfall and melt, burying the temple and then revealing it again. And the remains of this man, this stranger, lay undisturbed.
"Not another step Father! Not one more! I mean it this time!” the young woman's voice was rich and melodic, if a touch shrill and brittle at that very moment. "You lied to me!"
"I wouldn't say lie exactly. More that I... prevaricated,” the other voice was older, masculine and gruff. "You asked me how long it would take to get to this temple."
"Don't split hairs with me old man! You knew what I meant!” The voices were getting closer to the skull. Despite the woman' protestations they had not, in fact, stopped moving.
"I need to rest a moment," the man ambled into view and sat upon a rock. He wasn’t so old, with dark hair and a thick frontiersman's beard. A vigorous fifty with a woodsman's build, and the furs he wore made him seem broader still. He bore a tightly-packed traveling pack, which he eased off his shoulders with a sigh. "And stop shouting. You'll bring the whole mountain down on us.”
"At this point I would consider it a relief!" the woman snapped back as she strode into view. She wasn't even half his age, but stood nearly as tall. Black hair to her Father's brown, but she had the same striking blue eyes. Glacial, would have been the word the skull's owner would have used when he was alive. Beautiful and cold. Just like she was. Just like this place.
She was dressed in finely embroidered woolens, thick and warm, with a sable wrap to protect her face. Her long hair had been beaded and swept atop her head to protect it from the wind. She ditched her own pack and kicked an old metal gauntlet that lay nearby. It collided with the skull, turning it upside down. She ignored the skull's silent judgment of her as it stared into the sky.
"I can tell you're upset Kriss," the man said mildly as he settled in, pulling off his boots and massaging the soles of his feet. "It's been a long journey to reach this place,”
"Long? Father it's been three months! We left our tower - a refuge, no less - to wander the roads like common vagabonds!" she glared at the distant temple "All to reach a place that I could have lead us to in days if we'd used the Doors."
The man turned to study the structure thoughtfully. Even at this distance, the enormity of the structure was impressive – great stone walls, braced with ancient wooden reinforcement, it had the look of a long-forgotten temple or fort. "I told you, can't risk the doors. Passage could disrupt..."
"Mother's aura, yes Father, you've said. I hope you appreciate how insane that sounds,” She fixed him with a look. "What you're proposing is fantasy. Dead is dead. Even in this place."
He fished around in his pack. "I hope you appreciate how ironic that sounds coming from you," he smiled as he pulled out a small copper box. "I got you back. I can bring her back too.”
Kriss reached over the box and touched her father’s hand. "Yes Father, you did. You got me back," she gently fixed him with a sympathetic look. "But you taught me enough to know that’s very different to what you're proposing."
"So, leave!" he huffed as he shouldered his pack again. "Leave me and your mother to our fool's errand! We'll do fine without you." He turned back towards the temple. Kriss didn't budge.
"Fine? Three attacks by bandits in the last week on the roads. The Dullahan the week before. A near miss with a true Fae - the Deadlander, no less - and skulking our way through every stinking backwater pigsty village along the way!" she paused and hissed for breath. "Have you seen our definition of 'fine' Father? It looks very much like ragged desperation!”
"Is there a point in our future?" he asked evenly as he set out towards the temple.
She's shrugged her pack back on and hurried after him. "The point, dear Father, is that we have come a very long way on rumor, not fact, to visit a place that even the Fae avoid. We need more time to research..." her voice dropped away as they vanished into the distance towards the temple.
The skull waited. A strong gust of mountain wind rolled it over onto its side, to face back towards the distant temple. Time passed. Hours, days, it was all the same to the dead. It was not, in any conventional sense, aware.
But still, it waited.
The man and the woman emerged from the temple. The man reached the spot where the skull lay and carefully removed his pack, grinning cheerfully. His daughter followed like a dark cloud.
"Here's our friend, right where we left him,” the man exclaimed. "Let me just get my materials and I'll begin." He opened a pack and began to remove assorted items. She studied him.
"Father, there's really no need, I apologized. I didn't mean..." he cut her off.
"Nonsense. You were right - I've been dragging you halfway across the vale like a tinker's wife. That's no way for Marcos Greyhaven’s daughter to travel," Marcos picked up the skull and studied it. "Hmm. Good specimen. Aura's clean, no predation damage. Rather nice teeth. Let’s find the rest of you, shall we?"
He lifted the skull in the air and whispered a word in the true tongue. Kriss felt the electric and airy tinge of Sidhe as it was invoked, holding the skull hovering in place when he stepped away. Like filings to a loadstone, nearby bones began to draw into orbit around the skull as he pulled out a coil of fine red rope. This he lay out in a circle around the slowly spinning cloud of bones.
Kriss joined in the incantation, summoning Sidhe to move bones into their correct places and solder them into place with signs of Orth, its earthy essence adding weight and permanence. It was rather like assembling the puzzles her mother had given her to keep her occupied as a child. Her father Marcos marked out sections of the circle with ritual items, anchors that would keep the work from dissipating when they relaxed their weaving. As the last pieces came into place, she frowned.
"Father, this won't work. The skeleton isn't complete. It's missing an arm. Everything up to the forearm,” she wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. The weave was beginning to siphon a surprising amount of effort from her. More than she would have expected.
"Yes, sweet one, I am aware of that, counting being one of my many powers. Fortunately, I have a solution.” Kriss turned to see him holding the old gauntlet. But on closer inspection it was clearly not a gauntlet, being one solid piece, like a metal sculpture. He followed her gaze.
"Automata. Not a design I recognize. Rather odd find! But it will suffice temporarily,” he held the metal arm against the severed forearm and begin weaving intricate glyphs, symbols that hung glowing in the air. Fiery Yris to heat the bone and meld the gauntlet to the arm. Stoney Orth to secure the connection. Even flowing Mara to link the auras into one seamless whole. It was an impressive display of his power, but Kriss expected nothing less. Her father was a master of the necromantic arts. That she was here to witness this scene at all was testament to that.
The skeleton was now assembled, and hanging suspended above the ground like a puppet on strings. The metal arm was firmly affixed in place of its left arm. In its right eye was placed a purple amethyst – an extravagant example for so pedestrian a servant, in Kriss’ opinion. Marcos’ voice raised into a crescendo, as he hammered home the last glyphs that would lock his creation into existence. There was a burst of power and the skeleton fell from its suspension to the ground.
Marcos casually piled the objects back into the bag, ignoring the skeleton that knelt double over the ground. He tied the backpack ties and heaved the pack onto his shoulder. Only then did he turn to consider the undead creature before him. He nodded towards it. “You. Rise,” the skeleton did so.
“Face me,” the skeleton turned attentively. “I am Marcos Greyhaven. I am your master. You will obey me,” the skeleton gave no indication that it understood, nor did Marcos expect it to. He pointed. “This is my daughter, Kristalia Ravenna Greyhaven. You will guard and obey her,”
Kriss stepped forward. She closed until she was face to face with the skeleton, showing no fear.
“Creature. You will carry my pack for me. Pick it up,” the skeleton obliged, struggling awkwardly into the pack. Marcos stepped forward and secured the pack straps. Around its waist he slung a sheathed short sword. Kriss raised a questioning eyebrow. He smiled. “Courtesy of our bandit friends. If we’re going to have a servant we might as well arm him. Put the scare into the peasants,”
Kriss kneaded her shoulder, greatly relieved to be rid of the cumbersome pack. “Fine, but we’ll have to get rid of it when we reach a city. Order it to walk into a bog or something,” Marcos nodded.
“Indeed, but for now our new friend will lighten the load a bit. Quite a fortunate find in such a desolate place,” he looked to the north and the valley below. “We have quite a ways to travel before sundown. If we make good time we’ll reach the refuge of the Fall in a few weeks. From there it’s a day to the temple. Soon we’ll have your mother back.” Kriss nodded.
“And we’ll be a family again.”
2 THE FALL
The journey north was a difficult one. Marcos set a demanding pace, and even relieved of the burden of her pack Kriss struggled to keep up during the day. The skeleton followed them passively, sometimes falling behind but always catching up. At night, they would set camp and cook a small meal; Marcos had a hearty appetite but Kriss would pick at her food indifferently. She would often leave at night without a word of explanation, returning hours later to fitful sleep.
More than once, they encountered strangers on the road. They were treated with mutual suspicion and – in the case of one unhinged man, outright hostility. The skeleton arrived on the scene to find the cold corpse of the man propped against a tree, Marcos and Kriss waiting for it in the fading light of afternoon. Marcos was decidedly impatient. “About time, you old pile of bones! We’ve been waiting for over an hour!” Kriss languidly leaned against the same tree, ignoring the corpse.
“Father, relax. The creature can’t go any faster. And it is pointless to reprimand a construct that doesn’t even think. The undead are mindless,” Marcos turned back to her and fixed her with a quizzical look, eyebrow raised. “Well, not all undead,” she corrected. “But this one certainly is.” The skeleton was facing her for some reason. She hadn’t even realized it had turned. She ignored it.
“I think we’ll need to part ways with our friend soon anyway,” Marcos said as he unrolled a map from a roll on his belt. “We’re a few days away from the village of Three Roads. We need supplies and I’d rather not have to explain why we’re accompanied by...”
“An abomination?” a man’s voice rang out in the clearing. Marcos and Kriss turned towards the noise in alarm. Masked figures were emerging from the underbrush, swords, bows and axes in hand. At least seven, wearing leather armor concealed under green cloaks. The leader emerged – a solid man with a drawn sword and shield, wearing a red headband and masked from the eyes down.
Marcos carefully shifted to face him, his eyes narrowing as he unfurled his fingers. “We don’t want any trouble,” he fixed the leader with a threatening look and indicated the fresh corpse with a tilt of his head. “And neither do you. As you can see we’re more than able to defend ourselves.”
“Aye. I see that right well. Especially since that’s my man you and your whore murdered,” Marcos’ face hardened at the insult, and the implication. The dead man had been a scout. The other men circled Kriss and the skeleton warily, paying more attention to the creature than the girl. The skeleton stood passively; he didn’t expect much of it in a fight and these odds were concerning.
“Then unless you wish to join him I suggest you depart. I promise you we’re not carrying coin,”
The man spit. “I care not shit for your coin, Necromancer. The Red Hand has placed a bounty on your kind. They’ll pay us richly for putting down a practitioner and his undead abomination,” he fixed Kriss with a lecherous look visible even through the mask. “But we’re… reasonable men. Come quietly and we’ll let the girl live,” a few other men sniggered, but none dropped their guard.
Kriss felt a moment of terror rise, a flashback to that terrible night when rough men had laid hands on her. Murdered her. Under the harsh glare of the sun, she felt helpless, weak and slow. She was not accustomed to using magic in battle and there were at least nine men in front of them.
And then she felt it. A cooling touch on her skin, balm against the aching burn. She looked up and saw the most beautiful sight she could have wished for: shade. A dark cloud had drifted across the sun. She turned back to look her Father in the eye. Their exchange was silent, but spoke volumes.
“Gentlemen,” Kriss’ voice rang languorously through the clearing as she walked towards the leader, hands up and unarmed, she seemed to present no threat. “While I appreciate the sentiment, let me assure you,” she closed until she was inches away from the leaders’ outstretched sword, and then snaked her hand around the blade. She grimaced her mouth, which extended twin fangs. “I haven’t been alive for some time.” The leader yelled but it was too late as Kriss launched at him.
Arrows flew as the other men reacted in alarm to his screams. Marcos channeled Orth and a jagged piece of obsidian formed in his hand; he spun and launched the lance straight into the chest of the nearest enemy. Two men armed with axes swept in to cut down the skeleton but to Marcos’ surprise the Skeleton deftly side-stepped the first attack and brought the short sword up and out in a slash.
Good, Marcos mused as he deflected a shot from the nearest archer with a quick weave of Sidhe. The skeleton would keep them busy for a few moments before they destroyed it. Her daughter had finished the leader, tossing aside his bloody corpse as she sought out her next meal. Two arrows landed in her chest but neither found her heart as she flew at the men who had launched them.
The corpse of the leader landed nearby, and Marcos took a moment to grasp it and animate it with a few hasty words and a basic weave. The corpse’s eyes sprang open and it jerkily stood and raised its weapon. Men howled in outrage as their dead leader lurched to attack them. It was a moderate amount of concentration to hold the weave in place, but worth it for the distraction it provided. Men frantically beat down on the leader, its own blows far too slow to threaten them as it succumbed.
Behind him, Marcos heard the clash of metal on metal cease. The skeleton had fallen then. He took a moment to weave a blast of fiery Yris and torched another archer. The man screamed and ran burning, falling to his knees and collapsing before he made ten steps. Off to his right, another strangled scream indicated that his daughter had taken another man for a meal. Only three left.
He turned to face the last archer and he realized instantly he’d miscalculated; the man already had Marcos in his sights and launched an arrow at his face. He began to incant, but he knew it too late.
Thwok! Marcos opened his eyes to see a metal gauntlet inches from his face. In its clawed hand was the arrow, broken in two. He got his bearings: the skeleton was standing in front of him, bloody sword in its right hand and the arrow in the left. The two men with the axes lay dead. That was nearly as surprising as the arrow – he hadn’t expected the creature to best one man, much less two.
Kriss, enraged at the attack on her father, closed the distance to the last archer in a flash as the man stumbled back in shock. He held up the bow in a gesture that was half surrender, half shield. She grabbed the bow and snapped it, tossing it aside. “Mercy!” he yelped. “Please. I have a family.”
“As do I,” she spat, and slashed out his throat with razor-sharp nails. He collapsed to the ground. She watched his blood spill on the ground, hesitated, then fell upon him to feed. When she was done, she rose – cheeks and mouth splattered with blood, she looked vaguely embarrassed.
“Father, are you alright?” Marcos seemed far away as he studied the skeleton, still standing suspended with the arrow in its gauntleted hand. “Hmm?” he asked. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”
Kriss considered the skeleton. It seemed just as any other she had seen, and yet... “I saw what it did. I’ve never seen one move that quickly. Much less show any kind of initiative. Well done Father!”
“Wasn’t anything I did! It just saw that I was in trouble and it… acted,” he ran a hand over the intricate gauntlet. “Some form of interaction between the enchantment and the automata perhaps.”
“It was fortunate that cloud came out when it did,” Kriss spoke as she dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief. “It was as though mother were looking out for us,” Marcos gently reached out.
“Perhaps. Unfortunately, I think you were a little too carried away in the moment to remember what happens when you feed during the day,” Kriss' eyes widened as the clouds drifted clear of the sun. Nausea rose boiling inside her like a cauldron. “I'll hold your hair for you,” Marcos offered kindly.
After several minutes of being noisily and spectacularly sick, and several more cleaning herself up with the dead men's water flasks, Kriss re-entered the clearing wearing a fresh dress from her pack.
“Well” She said shakily, daring her father to comment on the scene of her horror. “I think if this encounter has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re too close to civilization to be accompanied by undead anymore.” She considered the ruined dress in her hand, and discarded it regretfully. That had been one created by her mother's hand, but Ravenna wouldn't have stood to let her keep it now.
Marcos nodded his assent. “Yes, I think it's time we parted ways with our new friend,” he turned to the armored figure as he began to gather his possessions together. “Creature, remove your pack.”
The skeleton sheathed its sword and shrugged off the pack. Kriss picked the hated pack back up and struggled into it. She fixed the skeleton with a look “Creature, you are no longer to follow us. Stay here. Bury these bodies.”
The skeleton obliged, and began to drag a helmeted body across the clearing. Marcos looked to it, then to the chain-armored body of another soldier. He grinned impishly. “Wait. I have an idea,”
A few hours later, Marcos and Kriss continued down the road, accompanied by an armored figure. It was thin in places, even gaunt, and its head was covered with a closed helmet. Only darkness was visible in the eye slits.
“I never expected you to be so sentimental, old man,” she quipped as they put distance between them and the ambush. He snorted. “To the Fae with sentimental! This creature is an anomaly. I’m not going to toss it aside before I understand why,” he withered under her bemused gaze. “And all right, I do sort of feel I owe him… it. Folks ought to show the dead more courtesy than they do.”
They traveled for three more days. At night they would set camp and the skeleton would take watch. Kriss watched it curiously. It wasn’t commanded to do so, but it would stand aside from the camp and face the nearby road. Not usual behavior for what should be a mindless automaton.
Dressed as it was now in layers of clothing and armor, it somehow seemed more human. She was used to seeing the campfire burn dark and greasy in the presence of undead like her, but when the skeleton was nearby it burned brighter and cleaner, as though fueled by an unknown source. Odd.
Gradually, signs of civilization began to appear over the days. Homesteads and cattle fencing gave way to fields and farms. The people gave the travelers a wide berth – outside of a refuge, farmers were at the mercy of the Fae, and the Fae could look like anyone or anything until they chose to reveal themselves. They had the haunted look of people who lived their lives in terror, and a hungry rangy cowardice driven by their desperation that made them even more dangerous. Those whose gazes lingered too long thought twice at the sight of the imposing armored figure that followed.
They knew they were close to the refuge when a road patrol appeared, mounted on horses armored in light leather barding. The equipment of the patrol was a slipshod mix of leather and chain armor, swords, axes, bows and shields. They had the look of men who fought for coin rather than oath.
“Hold there. You approach the refuge of the Fall. State your business,” the lead rider was a woman, blond hair braided into plats, with the harsh weathered skin of one who had lived in mountains most of her life. A Valkyr. She removed her helmet to better see. “Speak quickly man!”
Marcos bowed. “I am Rheum Alsandar, itinerant alchemist. I am here to purchase reagents for my craft. This is my daughter, Sila, and our man Brennis. May I ask with whom I have the honor?”
“Isa, daughter of Elsa,“ the woman gave a perfunctory nod. “We have limited space in this refuge for itinerants and vagabonds. You may stay three days. No longer.” Marcos nodded and smiled.
“More than I need. Is there a place where we might find lodging?” Isa’s face took on a sour note as she studied Kriss, then her eyes moved to the armored figure behind them. Kriss returned the gaze coolly. Elsa turned back to him, seemingly insulted by the question. “I care not a whit where you sleep, so long as it is not on the street. You want directions, ask a street hawker. I am no guide.”
“I meant no disrespect lady. If I have your leave?” Marcos gestured to the road. Isa gestured to the armored figure. “Your man neither meets my gaze nor acknowledges my presence. You there!”
The figure did not respond. Marcos turned nervously to cover for him. “Turn to face the woman when she addresses you! Show some respect!” The armored head swung to face her. “I’m afraid my man is mute and cannot address you, my lady. He was burned near to death in a barn fire a year ago. He never removes his helmet, out of respect of the sensibilities of good people like yourself.”