Legacy Fiction - Scars of Caen

Scars of Caen was a narrative league for Warmachine & Hordes that took place in 2014

Season 1: Charsaug

by William Shick

Occupied Llael, Just South of the Thundercliff Peaks, 608 AR
A jet-black form soared through the night sky, its bulk borne aloft on vast leathery wings. If not for the great expanse of stars blotted out by the speeding figure, the massive creature’s passage would have been all but invisible to any who looked to the sky. It was for this reason the dragon Charsaug preferred to travel at night. His keen intellect—one half of the ancient and terrible dragon Erdross—knew the value of guile. Whereas his brother Ashnephos struck boldly and without subtlety in the twins’ war against the hated agents of Behemoth who had so long ago struck down their forebear, Charsaug preferred to strike from the shadows.

It was not the pursuit of that old feud that brought about his flight tonight, however, but matters pertaining to a far older and deadlier war in which Charsaug and his twin took part—a war whose focus had shifted suddenly and dramatically.

The dragon’s keen eyes easily pierced the veil of darkness enshrouding his majestic frame. Slowly he wheeled as he readied to land within a forested grove at the foot of what mortals called the Thundercliff Peaks. As he neared the ground he pumped his great wings, sending cyclonic blasts of scorching air to buffet the land beneath. The force of the wind sheared off the tops of pines that had stood for centuries, splintering their immense trunks like kindling.

With the sound of thunder and the tremor of an avalanche, Charsaug’s powerful form came to rest upon Caen. At his touch, the ground beneath his clawed feet blackened and cracked like flesh put to a white-hot iron. Trees that had survived the dragon’s descent were snapped like twigs as he strode through the forest. Perhaps annoyed by the continued hindrance of the old growth, Charsaug shook his body to send forth a spray of molten lava from beneath his black scales. In moments the night was illuminated as liquid stone ignited the evergreens.

The dragon seemed to take no note of the inferno his presence had unleashed upon the once-idyllic landscape. Instead he stopped and dug his claws into the smoking earth, tearing up great chunks of soil, root, and rock like a monstrous dog digging for a long-buried bone. The sight was lost on those few creatures that had survived the dragon’s arrival; they sought only to flee for their lives as their world burned around them.

Caelan the Waykeeper’s skin tingled as she exited the ley line in a flash of green-hued light. Her mystical senses, attuned to the unique energies of the veins of Orboros, told her that her party remained intact. She felt a small euphoric rush at the successful transit. Though nearly all higher-ranking druids could travel through the ley line network, far fewer were able to safely guide large groups of those who lacked the wilding. Travel via ley lines was extremely rapid, but even a brief time within the veins of Orboros could prove highly dangerous. The ley lines were far from a constant, static path. They were less like roads than like rivers, changing their course to flow around any obstacles—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

“This place does not show signs of being touched by the presence of a dragon.” The familiar alto voice of Master Huntsman Berrick was much at odds with his exceedingly large frame. No matter how long Caelan worked with him, she still could not shake the thought that the Wolf of Orboros’ voice belonged in a man half his size.

“Your eyes do not deceive you, Master Huntsman. This place has not suffered the blight of Toruk’s progeny.” Caelan turned to face Berrick, who had yet to don his bronze wolf helm. His fierce green eyes flicked predatorily across the landscape. The wild mass of dark black hair and beard only added to his feral appearance. As far as Caelan was concerned, Berrick looked far more like the symbol of his order without his helm than with it. “I could not chance using the veins of Orboros to bring us directly to our destination. The damage they have suffered from the dragon’s blight makes them far too dangerous.” She pointed to the north, where the towering Thundercliff Peaks filled the horizon. “But we are close.”

“I’ve never feared a walk, Waykeeper,” Berrick said, resting his cleft spear across his shoulder. A wolfish smile appeared within the tangle of hair covering his face. He motioned to his pack—a mix of Wolves and reeves—and the group began marching northward, with the reeves moving far ahead to serve as scouts. Although there was no immediate sense of danger, the group spread out in a patrolling pattern with weapons held at the ready.

Caelan took up her position near the center of the pack. If trouble did arise, there would be no safer place. It was the pack’s job to protect her with their own lives; she knew that her safety was precisely the reason they accompanied her. Nevertheless, the thought of others sacrificing their lives for her own had always made Caelan uncomfortable. Her old mentor Donavus the Wornrock had told her these feelings would pass with time as she began to understand her role and importance within the Circle. Such knowledge would illuminate why different values were placed upon the lives of those who served Orboros. Still, the longer she spent with Berrick and his pack, the more her sense of responsibility for their lives grew.

The group made quick progress across the rolling Llaelese farmland. Caelan could feel the pulse of the ley line beneath them as they went, and she used it to guide them to the conjunction that was their final destination. The monotony of travel left her mind free to wander, and she found herself considering exactly what they would find once they arrived at the nexus. Her instructions from Lyvene the Wayopener had been brief. All Caelan knew was that there was a disruption in the network believed to have been caused by intense exposure to dragon blight.

With a sliver of her arcane power she traced the path of the ley line toward the nexus. She was startled by the sudden alteration in the line as her mind crossed the threshold of what must be the blighted area. Her brow furrowed behind the cloth that covered most of her face as she analyzed the corrupted line. If this was the damage done at the periphery of the dragon’s blight, she struggled to imagine what she would find at its epicenter. Anxiety seized her as she wondered if she would be up to the task set before her.

She was startled from her thoughts by Berrick. “Even with your coverings I can see your worry, Waykeeper.” He hesitated, turning his eyes northward as he considered his next words. “I will admit that you are not alone.”

Caelan looked up at Berrick, careful to mask any hint of surprise or concern his statement caused her. For a moment she wondered if he was questioning her abilities. “What do you mean?” she asked.

Berrick did not return her look, instead staring intently at the landscape around them. Caelan realized it was not her abilities he was concerned about.

“This place . . . there is something gravely wrong here. There is no . . . ” His voice trailed off and he shifted uncomfortably as he struggled to express his apprehension. Caelan was confident such feelings were quite rare for the master huntsman. “There is no life here,” Berrick said at
last. He shook his head and looked at her apologetically. “Forgive me, Waykeeper. I do not mean to burden you with my childish prattle.”

Caelan was unsure how to respond to Berrick’s surprising candidness. She had never seen the man show any vulnerability before—indeed, she had not even thought him capable of such an emotion. There was a long moment of silence as she searched for an appropriate reply. By the time she found one, Berrick had quickened his pace and was moving back toward the front of the pack.

They made the rest of the journey in relative silence. Caelan soon realized how accurate Berrick’s assessment had been, despite his difficulty in expressing it. The more she focused on their surroundings, the more she was reminded of a tomb. She had been less aware of this deathly atmosphere earlier because of her connection with the ley line below, which still thrummed and pulsed with its own life. But now even that constant was slowly changing as their company crossed the invisible border of the dragon’s influence. The aura of blight emanating from both the corrupted ley line and the tainted landscape made Caelan’s stomach churn. She steeled herself, knowing the effects of the blight would only worsen as they neared the nexus.

Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the devastation the great dragon had left behind. Caelan heard gasps from the Wolves nearby as they witnessed the awesome aftermath of the dragon’s presence. Blackened and broken tree trunks jutted from the cracked, smoldering earth. Ash floated like fog, casting a grey pallor across the area.
The visual bleakness of the scene was nothing, however, compared to the feel of the place. It made Caelan’s skin crawl. To her attuned senses, standing among the blighted energies felt like being smothered in a wet, moldy blanket. She found it hard to breath; the air seemed to stick in her lungs. She struggled to fight off the waves of nausea and dizziness that assaulted her with every step.

Caelan had been taught some of the Circle’s knowledge of dragons, and Donavus had impressed on her the danger they posed to all of Immoren. Though the creatures had remained quiet for the past few centuries, ancient accounts told of dragons laying waste to various locations for their own inscrutable reasons. The stories Caelan had heard from druids who had been to those ruined places had conveyed a sense of the desolation, but none had mentioned the intense feeling of wrongness she felt now. Certainly no account she had ever heard suggested a dragon deliberately targeting the veins of Orboros. As far as the Circle knew, the dragons were not even aware of the ley line network. It was possible this blighted infection was coincidental, but to her senses it felt deliberate.

A thought struck her: Could the disturbing sensations she was feeling mean the dragon was still present, perhaps having chosen to lair in this most unlikely of places? Carefully she probed the area with her mind, but she could sense nothing of a dragon’s presence. Relieved, Caelan chastised herself for thinking such things. If a dragon were here, she doubted she would need her finely tuned senses to detect it.

Suddenly she felt a strong hand upon her shoulder. She looked up in surprise, and an acute wave of vertigo swept through her. She felt Berrick’s grip tighten as she fought to maintain her balance. Weakly she tried to ward him off, saying, “I’m fine, Master Huntsman.” Her voice sounded unsteady to her own ears.

“I’m sorry to disagree, Waykeeper, but you are not fine.” He looked around, his green eyes narrowing. “This place is fouled.” When he looked back to her, Caelan was surprised to see the usual fierceness in his stare gone, replaced by a primal anxiety. “You must heal it,” he said.

Caelan’s chest tightened at Berrick’s words. She had begun her training as a talented wayfarer and had spent time among the stone keepers. She had risen to the rank of waykeeper because she was so innately attuned to the energies that comprised the veins of Orboros. She knew Berrick had seen her perform what would appear to be miracles to a member of the Wolves of Orboros.

But here? Now?

She was certain such a thing was far beyond her ability. This place was dead, and Caelan doubted it would ever be resurrected, perhaps not even with the efforts of the omnipotents themselves. Still, she had to try.

Fighting past the smothering sickness that assaulted her, Caelan focused her attention on the point of ley line convergence. She immediately felt herself retch as an entirely new and more powerful wave of blighted energies poured into her through the mystical connection.

The agony made her want to scream. She felt as if fat maggots were crawling beneath her skin. She wanted to rip herself open and dig them out of her flesh. Her head throbbed, and stabbing pain shot through her eyes from behind.

Berrick was speaking to her. She barely heard his voice, but the concern in his tone was clear. A single thought came to her: she had failed.

This thought pierced her mind like a lightning bolt and shocked her into defiance. She would not allow herself to fail. Even though it seemed the dragon’s blight had corrupted much of this place beyond repair, nothing on Caen could exist completely bereft of the power of Orboros. Concentrating with all her might, Caelan drew upon the primal energies below. As she gathered her power, she shaped it into potent wards and let it purify her body like wildfire. Slowly reality returned to her as the ravages of the blight were repulsed.

“Waykeeper!” Berrick’s voice was sharp and fearful. Caelan realized he was supporting her entire weight, her legs having given out completely when the blight consumed her senses.

She placed a trembling hand upon his chest. “I am all right, Master Huntsman.” Pulsing green runes surrounded her, the fierceness of their glow bathing Berrick in unnatural light. “Truly, you may release me,” she said, a little more firmly.

“Of course, Waykeeper.” Despite the concern in his eyes, Berrick did not press her for more information. Caelan noticed, however, that he remained close to her side as she made her way toward the nexus. She had to pick her way carefully across the ground, walking around several massive rents that were deeper than Berrick was tall. Upon closer inspection Caelan concluded these had been deliberately made by the dragon using its massive claws to scar the earth.

Adequately prepared this time for the feel of the severe blight within the ley lines, Caelan began a more thorough examination. Her brow furrowed in concentration as she drew greater amounts of arcane power into mystic shapes about her before sending tendrils of energy into the earth. With the skill of a surgeon, Caelan manipulated the strands to probe the churning ley line nexus. Somehow the dragon’s blight had seeped directly into it, and the blighted energies had mixed with the pure energies of Orboros. Like a virus, this corruption had used the pure energy to amplify itself. To Caelan’s horror, she realized that if left unchecked the blighted energy would begin to spread beyond this place and into the connecting ley lines. She would have to isolate the blight quickly. If it were to spread beyond the nexus, the ley line network in the entire region could be compromised.

The thought chilled her to the core.

Before she could continue, a commotion from the eastern perimeter drew her attention. She heard the shouts of one of Berrick’s reeves and the distinct twang of a crossbow. She caught Berrick’s eye for only a moment before the big man was off, pulling on his helm and shouting for his pack to converge on him.

Caelan released the nexus and hurried to join the Wolves who were rushing to engage the unknown threat. She heard several more shouts, followed by the sound of more crossbow bolts being loosed. Her grip tightened instinctively on the haft of her voulge. The shapes of two reeves fell back from the black and broken tree line. Despite the speed of their retreat they moved with coordinated precision, one firing while the other fell back and reloaded.

She strained her eyes, trying to pick out the enemy that had beset them. Shadowy forms began to solidify in front of her. Their shape and mass left little doubt they were trollkin, likely from one of the many small kriels that made their home near the foot of the Thundercliff Peaks. As the trollkin advanced, Caelan realized why she had thought them obscured by shadow. Their normally light-blue skin was splotched by heavy patches of black that sloughed and flaked off their bodies like ash from coals long gone cold.

Caelan watched as a crossbow bolt hit one of these blighted trollkin in its blackened shoulder. Instead of sticking in flesh, the bolt disintegrated the creature’s entire shoulder in a cloud of ash, and the arm that had been attached to it crumbled as it fell to the ground. The wretched trollkin howled and rushed toward the offending reeve. Before it could close, however, three more bolts thudded into its chest, this time finding flesh beneath the exterior of blackened ash. With one final moan the trollkin fell dead to the ground.

More of the trollkin were already breaking from the trees, each bearing the same signs of blight. That the trollkin could even function given the terrible effects of the blight on their flesh was unsettling, but far worse was the realization that none had been spared its torments. Caelan saw young and old, male and female, advancing toward her from the tree line, their eyes flickering with madness brought on by the unending torture of the dragon’s blight.

Memories of the sensation of the dragon’s blight within her own body flashed through Caelan’s mind. She shivered. Even a few moments gripped by the warping powers had been sheer agony. How terrible must it have been when the dragon was physically present?

Berrick gave a shout, and a volley of crossbow bolts hissed toward the onrushing trollkin. While nearly all found their mark, the blight seemed to combine with the trollkin’s innate hardiness to protect them from all but the most grievous of wounds. Caelan summoned forth her own power. Jagged mystical patterns blazed as she ripped up a great chunk of earth and hurled it at the trollkin. She felt some satisfaction as several were smashed beneath it in a spray of dirt and rock.

The reeves loosed one final volley at the oncoming trollkin before Berrick gave his Wolves the order to charge. As one, they leveled a line of glinting steel at the trollkin and rushed forward, howls of battle upon their lips. Caelan raised a second chunk of earth and sent it barreling into the enemy line.

The trollkin carried only simple axes and swords, likely kept for self-defense. They appeared to have been regular folk, now driven to madness and savagery by the corruption of the dragon. The Wolves, on the other hand, were trained and disciplined soldiers. They lacked the physical strength and resilience of the trollkin, but they were outfitted for battle and trained with a predator’s instinct. The momentum of their charge imbued their cleft spears with penetrating power that punched through the blighted trollkin flesh in an explosion of black ash. Where trollkin blood was shed it was thick and viscous; it sizzled and smoked like caustic acid.

The Wolves coordinated their strikes, using the reach afforded by their weapons to keep the stronger trollkin at bay while their comrades drove spears deep into their enemies’ exposed sides. Berrick’s voice rang out over the clamor of battle as he directed the attacks of his pack members with lethal efficiency. Though outnumbered, the Wolves had the upper hand.

A thunderous bellow issued from the rear of the trollkin lines. Caelan looked toward the sound and saw a hulking full-blood troll emerge. Its skin bore the same black ashen patches of blight as its lesser kin’s, and brutal bony spikes jutted from its flesh, the exit wounds weeping the same caustic ooze as the trollkin. The creature roared again, the sound a mixture of rage and agony, before crashing its way toward the Circle lines.

Caelan realized that, engaged as they were with the trollkin, Berrick and his Wolves stood little chance against the full-blood troll bearing down on them. If that monstrous creature broke through their lines, the Wolves would quickly be overwhelmed. Drawing again on her arcane power, she hurled another missile of earth at the troll. The creature simply smashed through the assault, slowed but undeterred. A hail of crossbow bolts soared toward it, piercing its corrupted flesh but having no other discernible effect.

Panic gripped Caelan’s chest. She fought to keep her mind calm as she considered possible ways to halt the seemingly inevitable defeat unfolding before her. She knew rash action would only speed their demise.

Suddenly a powerful howl crashed through the din of battle. Caelan watched as the air itself rippled and several of the blighted trollkin were torn apart by the sonic assault. A large white form approached in a blur from the jagged tree line, seemingly moving through the physical barriers in its path as it raced toward the oncoming troll.

At the same time, the slash of arcane bolts rent the air. More than a few trollkin fell as arcane fire burst through them. Caelan felt the familiar presence of those attuned to Orboros and turned to see several black-cloaked figures emerge from the trees where the ghostly form had appeared. Her mind reeled as she realized that, somehow, reinforcements had arrived.

She turned back in time to see the white blur coalesce into the awe-inspiring form of a warpwolf. The creature charged the enraged troll, halting its headlong advance. The warpwolf’s razor-sharp claws tore through blighted flesh, drawing another bellow of pain from its enemy. The warpwolf ducked a wild swing from the troll before springing forward to grab its overextended arm in both hands. Powerful muscles bulged beneath snowy fur as the warpwolf wrenched on the captured arm. As Caelan watched, the troll’s flesh began to tear. She then heard a sickening pop as the warpwolf tore the arm completely free of the socket.

Wasting no time, the warpwolf tossed aside the disjoined limb and pounced on the wounded troll, driving it to the ground. Warding off its feeble attempts at defense, the warpwolf seized the troll’s throat with one mighty hand and twisted. The troll’s body went limp as its neck snapped.

With the threat of the blighted troll neutralized, Berrick’s pack and their new allies swiftly overcame the remaining blighted trollkin. Blade and arcane fire flashed, accompanied by the sonic howl of the warpwolf and the twang of crossbows. In short order little was left of the once-proud kriel beyond crumbled and smoldering corpses.

The victory failed to slow the adrenaline pumping through Caelan’s veins. Lyvene had said nothing about tasking additional resources to Caelan’s mission, and Caelan had sent no communication requesting aid. The new arrivals’ agenda was therefore an unknown—and that made them a potential threat to her own success. Though all members of the Circle worked toward the same ultimate goals, the ways in which they pursued those goals varied wildly. Internal conflict was not uncommon; in fact it was expected to a certain extent, particularly among the potents.

Caelan had never taken much of an interest in the convoluted politics of the Circle. Donavus had diligently avoided such entanglements except when absolutely necessary. He had often said decisions made in the heat of the moment and actions based on political machinations are like pebbles tossed into a still pond: they warp the appearance of its surface. It was a lesson Caelan had taken to heart. At present she was operating on Lyvene’s orders, and she had no idea what rivals or enemies the Wayopener might have.

Caelan took a calming breath and walked toward the overseer of the druid cabal. Though she concentrated on keeping her movements relaxed and nonthreatening, she kept a wary eye on both the druid and the massive white warpwolf that now stood by his side. She chanced a look back at Berrick. The master huntsman still wore his wolf helm, which told Caelan all she needed to know about his assessment of the situation.

Turning back, she raised her hand in greeting to the druid. “My thanks for your assistance, Overseer.” Caelan chose her words carefully. “We were not expecting reinforcements, so your arrival is most fortuitous.”

The overseer’s face was inscrutable behind his low hood and face covering. He made no effort to respond, instead looking toward the towering warpwolf at his side. Caelan felt a new surge of adrenaline and her grip tightened on her voulge. She forced her voice to remain calm as she pressed him further: “My pack and I have been sent here by Lyvene the Wayopener. We have been tasked with repairing the ley line nexus. It would be welcome to know your business here.”

“Our task is the same as yours, Waykeeper.” It took Caelan a moment to realize the guttural and heavily accented voice did not come from the overseer but from the warpwolf. “We have been sent by Morvahna the Dawnshadow to assist you in healing this place. Its use will be critical in the coming weeks to my mistress’ plans in her war against the dragon Everblight.”

Caelan found herself speechless as she stared in fascination at the warpwolf. She realized he must be a pureblood, and a particularly adaptable one at that. She had noticed his throat shifting beneath his fur as he utilized his warping abilities to emulate human speech. She had never seen this before. The simulated voice was far from perfect—the words were heavily accented, and it took all of Caelan’s concentration to understand them—but the intelligence behind them was clear.

After a long moment of silence the pureblood continued. “I am Rochlof. My mistress tasked me with seeing this sacred site restored. And I do not wish to delay.”

This snapped Caelan out of her stupefaction. “Do you mean Morvahna sent you specifically to repair the nexus?” Caelan looked at the cabal of druids. Certainly they would be the ones with the skills required to manipulate the energies of Orboros.

The pureblood nodded. “I am here to assist you, Caelan Waykeeper. My mistress knew of your task and believed I would prove an asset.”

Caelan’s mind raced. She knew of Morvahna’s influence and reach within the Circle. She supposed it should be no surprise that Morvahna had learned of her mission here, but she wondered at the pureblood’s claim of being able to assist in manipulating the ley lines. Such creatures were said to be attuned to the energies of Orboros, but only in a crude and instinctive way.

She bowed slightly. “I am grateful for your help. The corruption caused by the dragon’s blight is beyond anything I have ever encountered. Worse, I fear if it is not cleansed quickly it will spread beyond this place.”

“Then let us be quick,” Rochlof said, motioning for her to lead the way.

Caelan nodded and made her way back to the nexus with Rochlof close behind. Standing once more over the nexus, Caelan became acutely aware of the dragon blight emanating from it. She looked at Rochlof, trying to discern what effect the blighted energy was having on him. His lupine features gave nothing away. She realized that despite the human intelligence the pureblood possessed, he was anything but.

Carefully she began drawing arcane energy to her, shaping it into the patterns she would need for the cleansing ritual. She saw a similar aura of power begin to coalesce around the pureblood as his yellow eyes faded into glowing green pools of light. He muttered something in his bestial language and slashed open his palm with a claw, drawing crimson blood that stained his fur. Continuing his chant, he placed the bleeding palm on her shoulder. Suddenly Caelan felt a rush of primal power flood through her. Rochlof was adding his mystical strength to hers, fortifying her efforts to fuel the ritual. The feeling was intoxicating.

Time passed differently while the two were absorbed in the powerful cleansing ritual. Caelan worked tirelessly, carefully manipulating the flows of energy buried deep within the earth. As she stripped the blight from the flows of the nexus, Rochlof returned them to their proper alignment. Caelan was impressed by the pureblood’s connection with the ley lines. Given the damage done by the dragon’s blight, she was unsure she would have been able to accomplish the repairs alone.

The moon was fully risen by the time the pair completed their work. Caelan felt the healthy pulse of the ley lines return as the nexus was at least partially restored. For all their work, however, the energy flows were only a trickle compared to the vibrant river they had once been. The dragon’s presence had permanently weakened this site, and it might require decades of diligent work by other druids to fully heal it. Still, for the moment the network was restored, travel could be resumed, and most importantly they had succeeded in stopping the blighted energies from spreading corruption across the region.

As she turned away from the pulsing nexus, Berrick asked, “All is well, Waykeeper?”

Caelan nodded. “Yes, Master Huntsman, the damage has been fixed—as best we can for now.” She turned to the pureblood. His yellow eyes blazed in the light of Caen’s three moons. “You have my thanks. As does your mistress.”

Rochlof bowed his large lupine head, and Caelan returned the gesture. She was about to call on Berrick to assemble his pack for their journey when she sensed a sudden sickly tremor through her still-enhanced connection with the ley line. She heard Rochlof growl and realized he had felt it as well.

“What is wrong?” Berrick asked.

“I do not know.” Caelan pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to concentrate on the disturbance. Urgently she reached along the ley lines below her, unease welling in her chest. She was certain they had properly repaired the nexus. She had taken every precaution. Slowly she realized the tremor had not originated from directly below them but from somewhere beyond, like a sound heard in the distance. She carefully traced the path that led toward the disturbance. Though only a faint echo remained, her heart jumped as she recognized the distinct aura of dragon blight.

Rochlof spoke first. “Another sacred circle has been corrupted, far northwest of here.” His powerful frame tensed as he spoke. “Another of Toruk’s progeny.”

Caelan nodded. The pureblood’s perception matched her own. Her mind reeled. “But why is this happening?”

The warpwolf ignored the question. “We must make haste there.”

Her eyes went wide at the suggestion. “No, we must report back. Lyvene and Morvahna must be informed so that proper steps can be taken. We cannot simply rush into Khador’s interior.”

Rochlof snarled, his primal nature showing. “Delay is unacceptable. Think of what we found here. If we wait, we give the blight time to spread.”

This was exactly the kind of rash decision Donavus would warn against. But Caelan could not deny that the danger posed by waiting was tremendous, and she realized that even if she sped back to Lyvene she would have little to tell her beyond speculation. They needed more information on the nature of this new threat.

Sensing her internal struggle, Rochlof said, “We will go with or without you. But I fear I cannot repair such damage alone.”

Caelan looked to Berrick, but the master huntsman’s face betrayed nothing. She knew he would follow her in whatever course she chose. She scanned the dead landscape, memories of the blight flashing through her mind. Her mouth went dry. “We will journey with you.”

Rochlof bowed once more, more deeply than before. “It is now we who are in your debt, Waykeeper.”

Her heart hammered in her chest as she considered the course she had just set herself upon. As the pureblood rose from his formal bow, she saw a flash of his white canines in the moonlight. For a fleeting moment Caelan could have sworn it was a smile crossing his predatory muzzle.


Season 2: Halfaug

by Aeryn Rudel

For Rochlof, traveling through the ley lines was an agonizing experience. The uncorrupted natural energy that pushed him along sent spikes of pain through his body, stabbing at the gangrenous core of blighted flesh deep within him. Having traveled this way many times, he expected the pain, but its intensity struck like a battering ram each time. The pain had become almost unbearable when he and his companion finally emerged at their destination in a flash of green light.

Mercifully, the anguish faded to a dull ache seconds after leaving the arcane pathway of the ley line. Rochlof drew in a deep breath of cold air as he saw and smelled the landscape around him. They’d arrived somewhere in the north, on tundra that was nearly featureless save for a
railway that cut through it. The smell that filled his nostrils was more telling: the distant scent of steel and grease was unmistakable—the stench of men at war. Underneath this prominent odor was something insidiously unpleasant, a ripe corruption that caused him to wrinkle his snout and cough.

A dragon had been here. Its presence was unmistakable. A large portion of the railway was blackened and twisted, the steel slick with icy rime. The ground around the mangled tracks had been transformed into a field of frozen ash and the sparse vegetation that could survive in the climate had been scoured away, leaving only bare, scorched earth.
“This is different,” Caelan said. “It’s too cold. We’re not far enough north . . .” She trailed off and frowned.

Rochlof looked down at the young waykeeper. Her head barely reached the top of his thigh. She smelled clean, wholesome, and pure. “Another dragon? Different from the first?” he asked. Making human speech was irritating and required him to modify the flesh of his throat to accommodate the crude syllables. The effort, unfortunately, was necessary to communicate with most humans.

The rest of their party had arrived through the ley line now: thirty Wolves of Orboros and the cabal of blackclads who had accompanied him to the first site of dragon blight. The Wolves, led by the tall human called Berrick, moved forward to encircle Caelan and Rochlof. They would protect their mistress until ordered to do otherwise. The druids stayed together, silent and grim.

Caelan closed her eyes a moment, obviously concentrating. “Yes,” she said after a few seconds. “It is similar to the last, but its blight has corrupted the nexus in this area in a different manner.”

He chuffed in agreement, then remembered most humans wouldn’t recognize that sound. He nodded stiffly. “I smell it, and I feel it. Cold. Stagnant. The other was hot and changeable.”

“It’s another dragon,” Caelan whispered, almost to herself. “What can that mean?”

Rochlof said, “Nothing good. But our task remains unchanged. We must heal this blight. Now.”

She looked up at him. Her face was passive, but he could see fear in her eyes. She took a deep breath and nodded. “You are correct. Let us find the nexus and cleanse it.”

“Be warned, there are men nearby, and their machines,” Rochlof said. “I scented them when we arrived. They may be headed this way.”

Caelan nodded. “Berrick,” she called out. “Have your men scout down the railway. There are enemies approaching.”

The tall warrior obeyed instantly, pointing his cleft spear left and right. The Wolves split into two groups and headed east and west, following the railway. The druids, who owed no allegiance to Caelan, stayed where they were. Rochlof could smell something akin to fear on the blackclads, an anxiety that would be undetectable to a human. Their apprehension was certainly due in part to the danger of their situation: they stood upon a dragon-blighted field in enemy territory. Some fear was to be expected. But beneath that lay the scent of a deeper worry, of the doubt that came with serving a difficult master and partaking in an inordinately difficult task. It was a scent with which he was quite familiar. He himself reeked of it.

As he watched Caelan move toward the ruined tracks, following a ley line to the heart of the blighted energy in the area, Rochlof’s mind turned to the task Krueger had given him. The Stormlord had instructed him to aid Caelan in her task but to secretly preserve a small portion of the blight in each area. All other considerations were secondary. He was uniquely qualified for such a mission, and this was the reason he had accepted Krueger’s bargain and turned from Morvahna the Dawnshadow to surreptitiously ally himself with the powerful druid.

The blighted flesh within him twitched, as it often did, sending a slight ache through his body. He closed his eyes and focused his own magic, using techniques learned through long years spent with Morvahna. He surrounded the cancerous growth in his body with power, sealing it off from the rest of his flesh and denying its influence. Though the pang receded, a subtle weariness remained in its place. It was becoming more difficult to stem the spread of the blight.

He had carried the blight within him for many years. At first he had endured it stoically as penance for failing his first mistress, Potent Selestria, by not dying alongside her. The red men and their machines had invaded Selestria’s territories, led by the enigmatic and powerful creature called the Old Witch. They had sought to study the ancient dragon blight in Selestria’s domain, which she protected from exactly that type of intrusion. The potent’s forces had met the invaders near the site of the greatest blight. Rochlof had fought viciously, aided by Selestria’s magic. But the cunning Old Witch had cornered the potent, isolating her from Rochlof and the rest of her forces. He had felt the death blow, felt Selestria’s life snuffed out in an instant, leaving a hole in the center of his being. Still he had fought on, even without her, his rage and grief making him implacable. But in the end there were too many foes, and he was finally cut down and left for dead.

After the battle Rochlof had been horrified to discover he had survived. Still, he felt compelled to live on despite his monumental failure. Horribly wounded, he had crawled through the dragon-blighted landscape as his flesh slowly knit. Thirst and hunger had gnawed at him, but he knew that eating or drinking anything from the corrupted land would surely kill him. Eventually, his injuries and the crushing grief of his loss had weakened his resolve. When he found a pool of water at the bottom of a deep crater he knew had once contained the blood of a dragon, he could not stop himself from drinking his fill. Even diluted by water and time, the blood was still potent and deadly. Its rot had taken hold within him, becoming an evil cyst that continued to grow slowly within him even today.

Rochlof shoved the terrible thoughts from his mind, drew in a deep breath, and followed after Caelan. The druids moved behind him. They were Krueger’s as well, and he had no doubt they were watching him to make sure he fulfilled the bargain he had struck with the Stormlord.
Some twenty yards from the railway Caelan stopped and knelt to run her hands over the scorched ground. Rochlof could feel the energy thrumming through the waykeeper as her magic sank into the earth, searching for the blight infecting it. She looked up at him as he approached.

“I’ve found the nexus,” she said. Her face looked pained, pinched by the effort of her magic and the physical and spiritual strain the blight placed on every living thing. “I need your help.”

The acrid smell of burning coal filled Rochlof’s nostrils, and he turned to the east and saw a black plume of smoke rising into the air. The humans of Khador were still some distance away, but they would be here soon. His hands opened and closed, the long talons on his fingers flashing like ivory daggers. He held no love for any of the men of the Iron Kingdoms, but the red soldiers who had cost him so much—those, he hated. There was work to do, however. The indulgence of slaughter would come soon enough.

“To the east!” Rochlof shouted, the rough, unnatural tones of his voice slicing through the relative quiet.

The group of Wolves who had started west down the railway quickly backtracked and moved to join their compatriots. Half the blackclads broke off to join them. The others stayed behind, ostensibly to protect Caelan from the Khadorans if they arrived before she could finish cleansing the blight.

“Can you aid me with this? As you did before?” Caelan asked, pulling Rochlof’s attention back to her. Rochlof growled low in his throat. “I believe so, but by the stench of their machines, I can tell the humans are coming in force. Your Wolves will need me.”

Frowning and clearly concerned, she turned in the direction the human warriors had gone. Rochlof had noticed a strong connection between Caelan and her Wolves, one born of long association and many shared battles. “Berrick is strong,” she said. “He will hold them until you are needed.” Her voice sounded clear and confident despite her fear; she had given the Wolf leader a command.

Rochlof’s ears pricked forward, the equivalent of a smile for a human. He could tear her to pieces in an instant, but if she feared him, she did not show it. Her unwavering focus reminded him of Morvahna.

The thought of the Dawnshadow sent a tremor of guilt through him. She believed he served her in this endeavor, as he had for many years, but her failures had left him no choice. She had promised to heal the blight within him, had even shown him how to halt its spread with magic, but she had not fulfilled her pledge. Krueger had offered him similar assistance, but the Stormlord possessed superior knowledge of the blight and the dragons that caused it. Krueger was confident he could heal Rochlof, and with the blight inexorably gnawing at Rochlof’s flesh and soul every day, Rochlof had felt he had no choice but to accept the Stormlord’s offer.

He raked a long talon across the palm of his right hand. Flesh parted and blood flowed, staining his white fur crimson. Rochlof began to chant, reciting the ancient words Morvahna had taught him for the ritual that would help cleanse the blight from the nexus.

Caelan looked up at him, her eyes distant and hazy as she sought to focus her own magic. Rochlof’s chanting grew louder as he focused his will toward a subtle variation of the ritual that Krueger had taught him. It altered the shape of the magic, molding it into something with an almost imperceptible difference. This variation would aid Caelan’s efforts to heal the blight in this area, but it was also specifically intended to leave some behind, preserved within the otherwise wholesome nexus. This small cyst of draconic corruption would be undetectable to anyone not specifically looking for it. The effect was not entirely dissimilar to the way Rochlof held the blight at bay within his own body.

Rochlof was keenly aware that it was the blight within his own body that allowed him to do as Krueger had asked. He did not fully understand why the Stormlord wanted to preserve some portion of the blight in these areas, only that it would aid his understanding of the dragons. In the end, Rochlof had chosen to believe Krueger’s mission served some greater good, a good that would include Rochlof himself—leaving him free of corruption and able to serve the Circle Orboros as the warpwolves in his family had done for generations with unwavering strength and loyalty.

The smell of smoke was stronger now, but he was nearing the end of his part of the ritual. Anger, hot and caustic, surged through him as the final words left his mouth. He turned to the east and saw the Wolves of Orboros forming into battle ranks, with the Wolves up front, their cleft-bladed spears leveled, and the reeves behind with cocked and loaded crossbows. All but two of the blackclads had moved up to flank them so their magic could both aid their allies and smite their enemies.

The Circle forces were impressive, but they paled in comparison to the mass of red-armored men and machines marching down the mangled railway toward them. Rochlof saw four ranks of heavily armored soldiers with stout shields and long pikes advancing together, shields locked in a wall of crimson steel. Behind them towered a huge bipedal machine, what humans called a warjack. The twelve-foot-tall construct gripped a gargantuan axe in each hand. Smoke boiled from its back, and the eyes in its small head glowed with a fierce red light. Worse yet were the six unarmored men in heavy grey cloaks; they stank of ill-wrought, unclean magic. Each of them wielded a stout two-handed axe, its blade shrouded in wan bluish light.

The Khadorans approached unhurried; they knew they possessed the advantage of numbers and arms. Rochlof saw one of the druids look back at him and nod. He would be needed soon.

Rochlof glanced down at Caelan. The waykeeper’s eyes were closed, her mouth moving in silent evocation of her magic. He could feel the stagnant chill beginning to dissipate as the blight was scoured away, but she would need time to finish the ritual properly. She would also need his strength to complete the final cleansing—strength desperately needed elsewhere. He had only one choice, and it was an uncertain one.

Rochlof reached down with one massive hand and gripped the top of Caelan’s head. Her eyes flew open, and she tried to jerk away. “No,” he said, “trust me.”

Their eyes locked. He saw she was afraid of him, but behind that fear was anger at his unwelcome intrusion. He was again reminded of Morvahna. He said urgently, “I have to go aid the others. You must finish the ritual without me.”

Again she tried to pull away, but he tightened his grip, holding her in place. She glared up at him, rage and terror warring across her face. “I cannot,” she said sharply. “I need you.”

“I know. This is the only way,” he replied, and pushed her head back. He held his slashed palm over her, made a fist, and squeezed. Blood ran freely from the wound, trickling onto Caelan. She flinched as the warm fluid splashed her face, but then understanding dawned in her eyes, and she did not turn aside from the crimson cascade even as it ran into her mouth and down her throat.

Rochlof released her and said, “It will be enough. Finish the ritual.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. He could feel her power regathering, within it a subtle note of his own power, the distinct savagery of warping energy. He knew the blight he carried would not be transmitted to her through his blood, as he had sealed its influence away inside of him. He possessed that much control over it, at least.

As the enemy approached the Wolves and druids, reeves began firing their crossbows over the heads of the spearmen in front of them. Many of the bolts simply rattled off the shields of the Khadoran pikemen, but some quarrels found their way through eye slits in helmets or through the joins between gorget and breastplate.

Now the Khadoran sorcerers—humans called Greylords who dabbled in unnatural elemental magic—began to spread out, moving as a single unit along the left flank of the pikemen. One shouted orders to the warjack, which followed him.

Rochlof could see what was about to happen. He left Caelan’s side and bounded over the frost-covered ground, moving behind the Wolves and toward the Greylords and their warjack. Two of the blackclads saw him coming and began running in the same direction.

Now the Wolves and pikemen met. The Khadorans did not charge; they simply pushed into their lightly armored opponents with the inevitability of an avalanche. The explosive tips on their pikes detonated seconds after impact, and Rochlof saw the bodies of Wolves go flying, limp and
boneless in death. Before he turned away, he saw Berrick dash into the hole left by the pikemen’s initial strike, his spear arcing out in a lethal jab that caught a Khadoran beneath her helmet and severed the woman’s head from her neck.

Rochlof sensed magic gathering in the direction he was running. The Greylords were weaving a spell. In response he felt the familiar warmth of the blackclads’ magic as they marshaled the earth’s power to turn aside the mystical assault. As they finished their incantation the Khadoran sorcerers stepped forward, spread their hands in front of them, and launched a blast of frigid air from their outstretched fingers. The spray of rime and ice struck the invisible shield the druids had erected around themselves and the closest Wolves and dissipated harmlessly.

The sharp, angry voice of one of the Greylords—a man with a long white beard and the bearing of a leader—rose over the din of battle, and the other Greylords pulled back. Through their number came the warjack, both axes raised.

“Get down!” Rochlof howled as he ran forward, nearly on top of the druids. They threw themselves to the ground, and Rochlof summoned the feral magic that dwelled within every purebred warpwolf. He felt it gather in his core and surge up into his throat in a tide of unstoppable power. Rochlof opened his mouth wide and unleashed the death howl. The piercing cry was a concentrated cone of murderous sound that crashed into the Khadoran warjack and two of the Greylords behind it. The ’jack’s armor buckled as it staggered back. The sorcerers behind it burst like overripe melons as the cacophonous wail pulped flesh and bone, leaving behind only gory, unrecognizable chunks.

Not wasting his advantage, Rochlof summoned feral strength into his body as he charged the reeling warjack. Disturbingly, this use of his magic caused long, bony barbs to push through the flesh of his knuckles—a minor manifestation of the blight within him. He pushed this from his mind as he barreled into the ’jack. His talons sank into the plate steel of its hull to tear huge gashes in the armor, though not deep enough to damage the internal workings beneath. A shout from the Greylord leader caused the warjack to pull away and level a swipe with its right axe at Rochlof’s head. He ducked, let the blade pass over him, and then slammed his entire bulk into the machine, knocking it backward again. A short, sharp scream told him the warjack had trampled one of the Greylords behind it.

Then the blackclads sent their own assault against the ’jack, and bolts of sizzling force arced from their outstretched fingertips to detonate against the machine in a flash of green light. The strike did no discernible damage, but the towering machine was forced back a few more steps.

Rochlof chanced a look to his right where the Wolves were battling the pikemen. It was not going well. The Khadorans were better armed and had heavier armor, and he saw many dead Wolves on the ground. The reeves had abandoned their ranged attacks and had joined the fray with the short blades on the stocks of their crossbows. They wouldn’t last long. He looked behind him to where Caelan was still hunkered on the ground, two blackclads standing in front of her holding voulges in a defensive pose. She pressed one hand to the blackened earth, her face set in hard lines of deep concentration.

“Aid the Wolves!” Rochlof howled at the blackclads near him. He held no real sway over them—they were Krueger’s—but they were no fools, and their mission aligned with that of the Wolves, at least for the moment. They hurried off, firing bolts of force at the pikemen as they went.

Rochlof turned his attention back to the warjack, which was now steaming toward him, smashing its axes together in deafening metallic clangs. The bellowed orders of the Greylord who commanded it rose over even that din. He let the machine come at him, drawing once more on his savage magic. He felt the blight within him pulse hungrily as he invoked his birthright. It added its power to his, and even though a part of him raged against it, he was filled with a sudden euphoria. Letting the blight have its way felt good, and he wasn’t fighting it.

Rochlof’s magic took hold and his body became insubstantial, light as a breath on the wind. A bank of white fog rose up around his ethereal form and rolled toward the warjack, a thick carpet of creeping mist that almost certainly obscured the machine from the Khadoran soldiers behind it.

The warjack barreled in, both axes swinging. Rochlof stepped lightly around the first strike, but the warjack was quicker than he anticipated, and the second axe whistled down in a furious overhand blow. Rochlof twisted aside, allowing the weapon to crash into his shoulder rather than split his skull. The immense pain only increased his fury. Shaking off the blow, Rochlof charged forward and through the warjack, his ghostly magic rendering him incorporeal. He smelled grease and smoke as he passed through the machine and caught a glimpse of its inner workings—gears, pistons, and a huge sphere in the middle of it all that pulsed blue and red. Then he was beyond and behind the warjack.

Aware of the remaining Greylords behind him, he again called upon his innate magic, this time to shield his flesh from their sorcery. He felt the icy blasts of their spells as no more than cool gusts of wind as he reached out with both claws and grabbed the warjack in an iron grip. A howl of pure fury burst from his mouth as he lifted the construct from the ground, planted his feet, and, in an astonishing display of strength, flung the multi-ton machine directly at the nearest group of Khadoran pikemen. The warjack crashed into the troops like a great red meteor, flattening three of them beneath its bulk and knocking half a dozen others from their feet.

Seizing the opportunity, Berrick and a number of Wolves raced in to dispatch the downed pikemen with their spears, easily finding gaps in armor plate as the soldiers struggled to rise.

Rochlof suddenly felt the pain in his shoulder subside, and the bleeding stopped. He glanced behind him and saw one of the blackclads a few steps away. The robed woman nodded once and then moved off to join her compatriots. Rochlof was thankful some blackclads could use their magic to heal creatures who served the Circle Orboros.
He glanced back to Caelan and saw she hadn’t moved or shifted position; she still needed more time.

The warjack was damaged but not destroyed, and as it climbed to its feet the Wolves who had been dealing with the downed pikemen scattered, returning to their brethren in the battle line. The remaining pikemen, emboldened by the presence of the warjack, locked shields and advanced again. The Greylords maneuvered behind them, their leader once again shouting orders to the axe-wielding warjack.

Rochlof rushed in, and the Wolves parted to allow him through. He reached the pikemen first and lashed out with his claws to rend flesh, tossing armored bodies aside like kindling as he fought. Two lances detonated against his body, scorching his fur and the flesh beneath it. He stepped back and loosed another death howl, obliterating the pikemen immediately in front of him and leaving a hole in their line. He charged through, while the Wolves streamed in behind him to deal with the remaining Khadorans.

He heard grunts of effort and cries of pain as the Wolves came to desperate grips with their enemies. They outnumbered the Khadorans now, but the warjack and its Greylord escort still tipped the odds in the enemy’s favor. Now behind the lines of pikemen, Rochlof charged the damaged warjack again, flooding his muscles with bestial strength. Instead of lashing out wildly, he sidestepped the machine’s first strike, caught its arm with both hands, and yanked savagely. Steel tore, pistons shrieked, and hydraulic fluid sprayed like blood over Rochlof’s white fur as the warpwolf ripped the warjack’s arm from its chassis. The construct stumbled away, fluid gushing in diminishing pulses from the empty socket.

Rochlof pried the axe from the disembodied hand of the warjack, tossed aside the limb, and took the weapon in a two-handed grip. He normally entered battle bolstered by the might of a druid like Morvahna guiding his actions, enhancing his attacks, and healing his wounds. He had no such support here. Wielding something as crude as an axe was distasteful, even dishonorable, but the warjack’s armor was heavy, and the weapon would bite harder than even his claws could tear.

Resigned to this tactic, Rochlof charged. The warjack brought its remaining axe up to defend itself, but the warpwolf leapt into the air and brought his own weapon down at an angle the warjack could neither reach nor deflect. The axe bit deep into the machine’s hull just above its head, and a shower of blue sparks burst from the gaping hole. Rochlof let go of the axe and danced backward as the ’jack toppled over and lay still.

The remaining Greylords had begun fleeing to the east, and he let them go. He turned back to see the Wolves finishing off the rest of the pikemen with spear thrusts or crossbow bolts fired at point-blank range.

They had won, but at a huge cost. More than half the Wolves had been killed. Their leader, Berrick, moved stiffly up beside Rochlof, clutching a wound in his leg.
Berrick pointed his spear to the east, his face impassive. “A train is on its way,” he said in a voice oddly high-pitched and mismatched to his muscular frame. More smoke was now visible to the east, multiple clouds of black soot larger than the one that had heralded the force they’d just defeated. This train doubtlessly carried additional Khadoran soldiers and warjacks—certainly more than they could hope to defeat.

One of the blackclads who had been guarding Caelan came up beside them. “She is not finished. The blight infecting this nexus is more complex than the last. You must hold.” This was the first time any of Krueger’s druids had spoken to Rochlof, who looked back at him evenly. The man appeared young beneath his cowl but seemed as nondescript as the rest of them.

Rochlof glanced down at Berrick. The Wolf hefted his spear, its cleft blade stained a gaudy crimson, and said, “Then we will hold.”

The warpwolf flexed his claws and chuffed in agreement. This time he refused to nod.


Season 3: Scaefang

by William Shick

Berrick watched as the approaching Khadoran train screeched to a halt along the Iron Highway, the great railroad that connected Khador’s major cities with the newly conquered territories in Umbrey. At least it had, until the recent visit from the dragon had ripped it asunder. The creature’s touch had torn great furrows in the earth, rending the thick iron bars in multiple places. Berrick’s grip instinctively tightened on the haft of his spear as he fought down the anxiousness of impending battle. His breath felt hot and heavy within his bronze wolf helm, and it bit at his nostrils. The Wolf of Orboros had never liked wearing the helm, uncomfortable with the feeling of confinement that pressed in upon him and severed him from the outside world.

As he watched the ranks of Khadorans begin to dismount from their rail transport, Berrick realized there was little need to concern himself with serving beyond this day. Ranks of Winter Guard stepped forth briskly, many of them carrying long rifles on their shoulders. Behind them came numerous smoke-belching, clanking Man-O-War and ranks of gleaming Iron Fangs. Lastly, a group of nimble mechaniks on a rearward flatbed car freed a trio of towering red warjacks from their harnesses. Berrick flinched slightly as the great machines stepped down with a sound like thunder from the railcar.

Slowly he reached up and pulled his helm free of his head, exposing his skin to the bite of the unnatural winter and causing hot steam to roil off him. Berrick breathed in the fresh, cold air, letting it cleanse his lungs, and took in his surroundings unencumbered by the helm. He wondered for a moment if he would experience the same sensations in Urcaen when he joined the Wurm’s eternal hunt today.

“Heron!” he shouted to the pack leader of his reeves. “Take your pack and see if you can circle around our quarry’s flanks.” He pointed toward a distant copse of trees. “Get as many of them as you can to chase you.” Berrick clapped his comrade on a bronze pauldron. “Harry them for as long as you can.” He’d known Heron for nearly a decade. He had no doubt the reeve pack leader would give the Khadorans a bloody hunt.

“I shall try to not bite them so hard that I leave none for you to bleed,” Heron said. The comment was devoid of humor; the reeve pack leader was as serious as anyone Berrick had ever known. Berrick nodded in thanks and Heron turned away to gather his reeves.

The hunt master heard chuffing behind him. Rochlof said, “And what are we to do while your reeves harry their flank?”

Berrick turned and fixed the pureblood’s predatory stare with his own, just as imposing as the warpwolf despite having to look up to meet his gaze. “We will take advantage of their distraction to buy you time to complete your mission.” Berrick motioned back to where Caelan floated, primal energies swirling about her. “And tonight my pack shall hunt with Orboros amid the wilds of Urcaen.”

If Rochlef felt anything over the sacrifice Berrick intended to make, he made no show of it. For several moments human and warpwolf held each other’s stare as if holding a silent conversation.

“You are worthy of your title, hunt master,” Rochlof said, dipping his head in respect to Berrick.

“There is one thing I would ask you before you go, pureblood,” Berrick said. “We need to reach them without having to make our way through a hail of bullets.”

Rochlof looked to the ranks of riflemen among the Khadoran army and scowled. “It will be only a temporary reprieve,” the warpwolf rumbled.

“It will be enough,” replied Berrick.

Rochlof nodded, and his yellow eyes glowed with emerald pools of light. Berrick smiled as he felt cool, wet fog on his exposed face. Today, they would teach the Khadorans there was still plenty to fear amid the wilds, firearms or no.

Caelan wrestled with the powerful energies that flowed beneath the dragon-rent earth, the pulse of Orboros a deep thrumming within her head. Sweat beaded beneath her face coverings, and her muscles burned with exertion as she fought to cleanse the corrupted energies that infected the ley line nexus. The power Rochlof had infused her with before he left to aid in the fight against the Khadoran vanguard had helped her for a time, but that loaned power was all but spent. Caelan had been shocked to feel the difference in the blight here compared to that she had cleansed at the base of the Thundercliff Peaks. Whether due to the comparative strength of the dragons that had infected the two networks or the passage of time diminishing the blighted energy at the previous site, the corruption here was far more severe and more resistant to Caelan’s energy.

It did not help matters that, connected as she was to Orboros, Caelan could sense the unfolding battle with a clarity eyes alone could not provide. She knew Berrick and his Wolves had no hope of standing against the new Khadoran arrivals. Her stomach twisted as she thought of the proud hunt master sacrificing his life so that she might have a precious few extra moments to complete her work. The knowledge added to her resolve to push herself beyond her own physical and spiritual limitations. Through her connection to the ley lines, she felt the blood of her pack spilled upon the soil by bullet and blade, and she saw the massive Khadoran army advancing inexorably on the scattered Wolves.

A wave of sickness swept over her as her concentration wavered at the vision and the blighted energy below briefly wormed its way into her. With a grunt of effort Caelan forced it back once more. She was so close; the pulse of Orboros had stabilized and now flooded her with power. In her exhausted condition, though, instead of being an invigorating draught the flow of power was like a tidal wave threatening to drown her. Now was the most critical time. With the flow restored, if the isolated blight broke free of her control it would mix with the currents leaving this place and swiftly contaminate the network well beyond this site. Such an event would be catastrophic.

It was at this point that Rochlof had been of most help to her during the ritual at the Thundercliff Peaks. He had contained the blight and sealed it away, leaving Caelan to stabilize the purified ley lines.

As if bidden by her thoughts, a surge of primal force plunged into the nexus and mingled with her own. Through the connection Caelan heard the voice of Rochlof within her mind. Bolstered by his presence, she attempted to draw upon the last of her inner reserves so that she might complete the ritual. Try as she might, however, she felt like a flame that had burned away the last bit of wood which sustained it and now flickered on the edge of extinction. As the ritual magic began to unravel around her, Caelan saw the physical shape of Rochlof before her. Time seemed to stand still as she heard the pureblood’s voice in her mind.


Her eyes widened in horror as she saw Rochlof’s hand flash forward, the razor-sharp claws ripping through the chest of one of her guarding druids in a spray of crimson. The other druids raised a shout of shocked alarm at the sudden and brutal death of their companion, but Rochlof froze them with a predatory snarl. Before Caelan’s mind could fully process what was happening she saw Rochlof bring a pulsing red mass up to his snout. As if in a dream she heard the warpwolf utter strange and alien sounds over the still-beating heart of the slain druid. He cut away her face covering with his free hand and thrust the bloody organ toward her.

Eat! The command rang within her mind. Despite her revulsion Caelan found herself doing as Rochlof bid. Coppery warmth exploded in her mouth as she bit down hard on the tough muscle, tearing a great chunk from it to slide down her throat. Somewhere in her mind, as if observing from a great distance, Caelan found herself surprised at how hot the raw muscle was. It repulsed her, but she pushed that instinct away.

More! Rochlof commanded, and Caelan continued to eat. She felt a tingle begin in her belly and spread throughout her body. Like a rush of heat the sacrificial magic burned away the fatigue and exhaustion, infusing her spent muscles and spirit with blazing new energy. Caelan felt the failing tendrils of her ritual reknit and reform, plunging her back into the roiling energies of the nexus.

She did not allow herself a moment to consider what she had done, the obscenity of it. Ignoring the uncomfortable sensation of blood drying around her mouth, she poured all her newfound energy into completing the final acts of the cleansing ritual as Rochlof contained and eliminated the last of the blighted energies.

Berrick shouted an ancient Molgur curse as he drove his cleft spear into the chest of a Winter Guard. Rochlof’s mystic fog had successfully concealed his pack from the rifle fire of the Khadorans. Only a few Wolves had fallen to Khadoran bullets, and those early on. The mist had also allowed Heron’s reeves to sneak around the Khadoran flanks unmolested. Berrick could hear the twang of the pack’s crossbows being fired in the distance.

He felt far less anxiety now that he was engaged with the enemy. It was easy to forget about the overwhelming size of the Khadoran force here. Now his only concerns were the thrust of his spear and the spilling of his enemy’s blood while preserving his own for as long as possible.

Berrick wrenched his spear back and thrust forward again, the twin points impaling another unlucky guardsman. Though the hunt master tried to maintain coordination with his pack, they were too few and the enemy too numerous, which hindered the Wolves’ effectiveness against tougher opponents. Thankfully, for the time being the more heavily armored Khadorans were still moving forward from the rear ranks.

Berrick busied himself with killing several more Winter Guard, the length of his spear giving him an undeniable edge over the short axes the Khadoran riflemen wielded. He could feel the predatory instinct within him, honed over years of battle and burning at him to drive forward. Berrick knew, however, that he had to be careful not to press so far forward that he would be overwhelmed by weight of numbers.

He picked up the acrid smell of smoke that heralded the lumbering Man-O-War troopers well before he saw the first of them emerge from the Khadoran lines. A hulking form of red steel and glinting bronze, the Man-O-War bore a shield nearly the size of Berrick himself as well as a fearsome annihilator blade whose edge crackled with energy. Thick black smoke poured from the stacks upon its back, filling the air with gritty soot that stung the nostrils. Berrick dodged to one side just before the Man-O-War’s halberd sliced through the air where he had stood. He darted forward while the steam-powered warrior worked to recover and thrust his spear with all his might at the Man-O-War’s exposed side.

His effort was greeted with a numbing shock to his arm and the screech of steel scraping across steel as the Khadoran heavy plate deflected the points of the spear.

Berrick tried to dart back following his failed attack, but the Khadoran recovered much faster than any human wearing so much armor should have been capable of. In desperation Berrick brought the haft of his spear up to slow the Man-O- War’s strike. The annihilator blade sheared through the thick steel with a crackle of released energy, but the spear slowed the attack just enough to provide Berrick the time he needed to narrowly avoid the weapon’s bite. The hunt master felt sparks of mechanikal energy that crackled along the blade leap out to strike his exposed face.

His spear ruined, Berrick tossed the pieces aside and drew a pair of long hunting daggers from his belt as he continued to put more space between him and the Man-O-War. As he eyed his opponent, the normally deadly blades felt pathetically underwhelming in his hands; he knew he had no real hope of felling this opponent with such weapons. His muscles tensed as he took on a defensive fighting posture and the Man-O-War moved once more to attack.

He knew this fight was unwinnable. It wasn’t winning that mattered, but time. Every moment he and his pack held the attention of the Khadorans was another step closer to victory. The idea of his death did not concern him, only the fear of failing in his oaths. He would buy the waykeeper the time she needed. He only hoped that time was nearly done.

With a great sigh Caelan released her ritual and felt her feet return to the earth beneath her. The dried blood upon her face itched, and she avoided looking at the bloody corpse of the druid that lay at her feet. Even had she wanted to spare a moment to reflect on the druid’s sacrifice, the chaos of the Khadoran approach would not have offered her the chance. Seeing the world disconnected from the veins of Orboros, Caelan’s eyes widened as she realized how perilously close the Khadoran force was to her position. Berrick’s Wolves had put up an impossible fight, a last stand worthy of the heroic songs sung among the various packs during times of celebration. Though she could tell that many had fallen already, those that remained continued to stall the Khadoran forces, making them pay in blood for every inch they advanced.

“We must go,” Rochlof growled as a sound very much like thunder pealed across from the Khadoran lines. Caelan saw his hackles rise as he glared at the rapidly approaching Khadorans.

She nodded, her chest tightening. She spared one last glance toward the Khadoran line as it swept over the last of Berrick’s Wolves, and then she reached down to connect herself once more to the veins of Orboros. She had to return to Lyvene and report what had occurred. As she felt the familiar tingle of primal energy surround her and the few surviving druids, she couldn’t shake a twisting fear that this was far from over.

The world spun as Caelan felt herself wrenched from being merged with the ley lines back to the material world. While there was always some slight disorientation upon exiting ley line travel, the sudden and unexpected emergence played havoc with her senses. Her guts roiled and she fought the urge to vomit. The overwhelming immediate physical sensations numbed her mind to the question of what had just happened. She knew at once they had not reached their destination.

Caelan tried to steady herself, but it felt as if the entire world was violently shaking. She looked up to the sky, but all that looked back was a formless blackness. Slowly the sound of her mind screaming a warning began to make itself heard through her addled state. Turning to check on Rochlof and the few druids remaining of their original party, she felt an intense wave of nausea wash over her again. Dread gripped her as she realized there was something oddly familiar about the sensation.

A strange, oppressive heat bore down from above, and she looked up to see the blackness seem to expand with a muted orange glow. Sudden realization struck her as she watched the blackness contract and the glow race across a black form above.

They had emerged from the ley line directly beneath a dragon.

Caelan saw the unmistakable shape of the dragon’s massive head in the distance, illuminated by a massive gout of flame shot into the great furrows the beast had rent in the earth.

Pushing past the disorientation and sickness that assaulted her, Caelan fought to draw upon her connection with Orboros to shield herself from the blight radiating from the dragon. Try as she might, the pure blight separated her from Orboros, like the waves of the great Meredius pulling her farther from shore.

She stumbled as she tried to move away from the dragon and realized the tremors that shook the earth came from its footfalls. She saw one of the druids who had accompanied Rochlof, staggering with his hands pressed hard against his head as if trying to ward off some deafening sound. Caelan instinctively reached out to assist him even though they were several feet apart.

A great talon twice the size of a woldwrath swept by, ripping up rock and earth as easily as a child’s finger through sand. Caelan felt herself being yanked back by powerful hands just as the dragon’s claw passed mere inches from her face. Even as her own feet left the ground the druid was simply swept away by the titanic foot.

She closed her eyes, expecting her death to soon follow. Instead she heard a growled voice, strain evident in its snarls and grunts. “Must . . . get . . . away . . .”

Caelan opened her eyes to see Rochlof’s face in front of hers. The warpwolf stood protectively over her, a nimbus of pale green energy surrounding him. She realized with shock that he was still able to draw upon his primal magic and was using it to mitigate the blight immediately around him.

It was not without cost, however. The pureblood’s muscles writhed beneath his skin like pulsating snakes. She could hear the snapping of bones as they elongated and shifted. His entire body seemed an ever-changing protean mass. Spines erupted from his flesh in gory waves, and his jaw cracked and popped as it elongated past his lips and his fangs grew to lengths that forced his mouth wide apart. He howled in agony as his body changed and twisted with such rapidity that Caelan feared it would tear itself apart in front of her.

Over the thunderous noise of the dragon above them, she shouted, “We must run! The ley lines beneath this place are utterly corrupted. We cannot travel by them.” Rochlof’s body continued to be wracked by violent shifting spasms, and for a moment she wondered if he had even heard her words.

“You . . . run,” he growled. “Survive . . . Heal this place.”

Caelan shook her head at the pureblood’s words. She had already lost Berrick and his pack; she was not about to lose Rochlof as well. She placed her hands on him, trying to help support his weight. Several spines erupted from Rochlof’s flesh and pierced her own in painful shocks, and her primal survival instinct kicked in. She yelled for him to move just as the dragon’s massive hind foot began to descend where they stood. Caelan pulled on the spasming pureblood, trying to drag him to safety, but he was simply too heavy for her to move on her own.

In her desperation, she flashed to the connection they had shared during their rituals to cleanse the veins of Orboros. With no time to consider, she fought past the waves of sickness from the dragon’s corruption and poured her mystic power into Rochlof in an effort to stabilize and contain the blight raging within him as he had done for her during the rituals.

For a heartbeat Rochlof’s form seemed to stabilize and she saw predatory clarity return to his yellow eyes. The mighty warpwolf seized her in his powerful arms and sprang forward, his leap taking them just beyond where the dragon’s foot crashed into the ground with the force of an earthquake.

The shock wave caused Caelan to lose what little control she had over her magic, and Rochlof’s body returned to its rapid shifting. At the same moment, Caelan spied the last two druids who had accompanied Rochlof desperately trying to avoid the sweeps of the dragon’s claws while navigating the massive rents in the earth. Waving her bleeding hands, she shouted as loudly as she could, hoping to attract their attention so they could come aid Rochlof.

The massive reptilian head of the dragon turned on its sinuous neck, and Caelan felt her heart freeze in primal terror as she looked into the creature’s ancient, malevolent eyes. As if in slow motion she saw the titanic jaws open to reveal a glowing chasm that reminded her of a volcano. Before either druid could realize the danger behind them, the dragon snapped them both up into the abyss of its maw.

Caelan dared not move as she was confronted once more with the dragon’s terrible stare. Beneath that gaze time seemed to stand still. She was positive that at any moment she and Rochlof would be roasted alive by dragon fire or crushed by the ancient wyrm’s jaws. The thought of death was almost preferable to the sensation of having her soul seared by its inscrutable gaze.

Slowly the great wyrm turned away, and the area was buffeted by a sudden burst of wind as the dragon unfurled its massive wings and took flight.

“You don’t understand,” Caelen asserted. “I believe these attacks on the ley lines are no mere coincidence. There is a larger plot at work.” She fought to control the torrent of emotions that still raged within her following their confrontation with the dragon. “The dragons have never shown any interest in the ley lines before, yet we have seen three such attacks in less than three days.”

Rochlof shook his lupine head in disbelief. “What are you suggesting?”

“There is a greater pattern to these attacks, as if each one is part of a larger ritual. It has taken me until now to see it, but I am certain this has all been set in motion by one of my order, someone highly placed—impossible though that seems to me.”

“Why would they bring harm to Orboros, the source of their own power?” Rochlof asked.

It was a question she had been pondering as well, the crux of the situation. “That can’t be the end result they are seeking. It must be a means. Any druid powerful enough to set this in motion would know we wouldn’t let such damage go unchecked. They would be familiar with the rituals of renewal and cleansing. They must have relied upon our intervention, knowing it would happen, planning for it.”

“But toward what end?” Rochlof pressed again.
“I don’t know yet,” Caelan admitted, “but it’s the only thing that makes sense. I think we should find a way to bring word to our superiors. They will know what to do, how to stop whoever is behind this.”

Rochlof shook his head. “You cannot allow this taint to infect the veins of Orboros. If what you suggest is true, it’s even more imperative that we heal this place. Stopping this plot cannot be more important than fixing the harm done. Only when it is safe here can we send word to Morvahna and Potent Lyvene.”

Gritting her teeth, Caelan said, “But that is what they want. We will simply continue being their pawns?”

Rochlof scowled and said, “They cannot have known we would arrive here like this, the route we would take, the timing with the dragon. Ordinarily it would have taken time to discover this new outbreak of blight. We can use that time.” The pureblood placed his massive paw upon her shoulder.

Caelan nodded, feeling rising excitement. “Yes, we are ahead of where they would think us to be.” She paused to consider this. Ultimately she felt Rochlof was right: she could not let the ley lines be further compromised. Cleansing this place was worth advancing the plot for the greater good of ultimately stopping it. “Very well,” she said at last. “We shall cleanse this place. And then we shall take this information all the way to the omnipotents if necessary.”


Season 4: Blighterghast

By William Shick & Aeryn Rudel

Northern Wyrmwall Mountains
Caelan craned her chin up toward the grey slope of the titanic Wyrmwall Mountains. Thick, menacing storm clouds roiled above, coloring the sky an unnatural grey-green. As she and Rochlof climbed the scree-covered slope, she felt the hairs on her body begin to stand on end, her skin tingling from the barely restrained electricity that saturated the air.

A storm was coming to this place.

She turned to look at Rochlof, who was slowly loping his way up the grade just behind her. He should have been easily outpacing her, given his more nimble, predatory form, but their recent encounter with the dragon had left him drained. He moved with a slight unsteadiness, and his form still sporadically shifted and twisted under his sable fur, though far less violently than when he had been in the presence of the dragon. When it occurred now, it looked like some massive worm or snake burrowed just beneath his flesh, distending and stretching his skin as it moved. Sometimes this was a prelude to a bony spine ripping bloodily through his skin; other times the shape would simply swell and pulse before his flesh returned to normal. Regardless of the outcome, Caelan could hear Rochlof’s breathing intensify each time he steeled himself against the forthcoming agony.

His condition had made their ascent take far longer than she had wished, though she was careful to conceal any hint of her impatience from him.

“You need not wait for me, Waykeeper,” he said as though reading her mind, panting for breath.

Caelan repressed the urge to take his offer and hurry on. “I will not abandon you now,” she said. After all, there was no guarantee Morvahna would already be at the site waiting for them. The potent would come when she willed.

“I can smell your anxiety. Your haste.” His words were interrupted by a low, uncontrolled growl that reverberated from his throat as a wave of warping reached its crescendo. “I am only slowing you down.”

Much to her chagrin, Caelan was again gripped by the thought of abandoning Rochlof. She viciously chastised herself for the lapse and firmly banished the thought. She had abandoned too many others already. “We will meet with your mistress together or not at all.” Her tone brooked no argument.

Rochlof’s yellow eyes fixed on hers for several more seconds before he finally wheezed in assent. Though it was nearly impossible for her to read his lupine facial expressions, Caelan thought she saw gratitude in his eyes.

The sky continued to darken in its sickly shade as the pair made their ascent to where Rochlof had said Morvahna the Dawnshadow might be found. Though Caelan burned to deliver news of their mission and her terrifying conjecture as to the truth behind it all to Lyvene, she had been unable to contact her superior or ascertain her location. Rochlof had rightly argued that, given the critical nature of their report, it was imperative they deliver their findings to someone of comparable authority.

Despite the chill of the elevation, Caelan wore a thin sheen of sweat by the time they reached the intended meeting place. It was an old site, in a state of disrepair. The standing stones that marked it were overgrown with plant life, their granite faces eroded from possibly millennia of exposure to the elements.

Caelan could feel the thrum in the veins of Orboros below as she stepped within the perimeter of the stones; the current here was strong. “I see we are the first to arrive,” she said, scanning the empty sacred site.

“The druids have always moved at their own pace,” Rochlof said softly. “Trust that they will be here in time.”

Caelan nodded, but her insides twisted with growing impatience. She opened her mouth to respond but thought better of it and instead turned her face to the stormy sky. She watched as lightning streaked across the green-tinged clouds. She found herself silently counting as she waited for the rumble of thunder. She could feel the ley lines below stir with increasing intensity as they reacted to the primal energies of the storm above.

A growl of pain from Rochlof brought her attention back to her companion. She could see the warpwolf’s flesh swell and pulsate, the muscle and bone writhing as if a living thing independent of the warpwolf himself.

“The blight continues to affect you?” she asked.

The warpwolf snarled and nodded. The uncontrolled warping made it impossible for Rochlof to alter his vocal cords to approximate human speech. Without thinking, Caelan reached out, drawing upon the power of Orboros focused within the ancient sacred site. With some hesitation, she placed her hand upon Rochlof. The memory of his spines ripping through her flesh mere hours ago flared fresh in her mind.

This time there were no spikes—only the feel of tormented muscles and rapidly re-forming bone beneath coarse fur. Concentrating, she tapped into the connection they had shared, the one she had used to provide momentary respite to Rochlof so he could save them from being crushed beneath the dragon’s claw.

She let out a sharp breath as she plunged into the turbulent blight that raged within the warpwolf. Bracing herself, she gently probed at the energies within him. The feeling was surprisingly similar to what she had felt within the corrupted nexuses.

An idea slowly formed in her mind. Carefully she channeled the power of Orboros from within her into Rochlof, guiding and manipulating the tendrils of pure energy to slowly ensnare and entrap the blight raging through the warbeast. As she worked, she realized the blight traced back to a single source: a black, churning void in the primal spirit of the powerful pureblood.

Slowly she folded and forced the blight back to that center, using rituals similar to those she had used on the veins of Orboros to contain and segregate the blight. Rochlof fell to his knees and then to the ground, but as the blight was pushed back, she felt the familiar sensation of his primal magic joining with her own, empowering her efforts to trap the corruption back inside the unnatural tumor.

Her task completed, Caelan withdrew her power from Rochlof. The warpwolf lay on the ground, his body shaking from exhaustion.

“Thank you.” His words were barely intelligible; he struggled to reassert control over his body. Caelan made only the barest show of acknowledgement. Instead, she let her focus drift as she considered the blighted core she had just discovered within him.
Slowly Rochlof rose to sit on his haunches, bringing his snout level with Caelan’s face. He sat motionless, his eyes locked on hers for several moments. Even with all they had been through together, Caelan still found the warpwolf’s stare unsettling. Caught in his gaze, she felt unable to give voice to the questions swirling through her mind.

“You wish to know about the blight within me,” he said at last. Caelan nodded but said nothing. Rochlof’s body slumped with a heavy sigh. “It is a long story, filled with death and pain and fear. The short of it is, in a bid to save my life, I drank from water I should not have. Driven by my desperate thirst, I allowed the blight to enter me. My fear of death damned me to an even greater torment.”

“How long?” Caelan asked. “How long have you carried it?”

“Since the death of my original mistress. Too long.” His voice trailed off, and he looked toward the lightning storm that raged above them. “Morvahna taught me to bind the infection. To keep it contained. But recently I have felt its sickness growing. I fear her methods are no longer enough to keep the blight at bay. I am tainted—physically and spiritually. Our encounter with the dragon has proven what I feared: the blight will soon consume me.”

“No,” Caelan said, “you are too strong for that. Even in the presence of the dragon, you did not lose yourself completely.”

She thought for a moment and then added, “If the ley line network can be healed of the blight, there must be a way to do the same for you.”

Rochlof lowered his gaze to the ground and let out a disdainful huff. “I have been told by several that they believe a cure is possible, though it will not be simple. It requires time and the effort of those too busy to attend to such as me. I was told I must earn such care. This mission was my last obligation to earn my redemption.”

A brilliant bolt of lightning split the sky above them. Caelan looked up in surprise. A chill wind rose, and the first small drops of rain began to splash down on her face as more lightning flashed overhead. Yet the roar of thunder that followed came not from the world around her but from within her own mind. She felt a sudden surge in the currents of Orboros below her.

Another flash of green-hued light blinded Caelan, filling her vision with nothing but white. She blinked several times to clear her sight, and as she did, a black silhouette slowly materialized before her.

The figure was tall and lean. A great cloak hung about his shoulders, similar to the kind preferred by most druids of the Circle. The hood, however, was pulled back, revealing a sharp, angular face and a bald head. Tiny bolts of electricity crackled and arced about the forked spear the druid held in his hand. Rochlof immediately knelt and lowered his head in a display of subservience.
The lightning storm above raged to a new frenzy of activity, as if spurred on by the druid’s arrival. Confusion clouded Caelan’s mind. The figure before her was clearly not Morvahna. Instinctively she drew on the power of Orboros, ready to wield it in self-defense. “You are not the Dawnshadow,” she said even as she realized who stood before her. Fear filled her.

Krueger the Stormlord looked at Caelan briefly before turning to the kneeling warpwolf. “It seems you have done more than your assigned task.”

Rochlof dropped his head even more beneath the druid’s gaze. “Yes, Stormlord. Arriving at the third nexus was unexpected and unplanned.”

“Thankfully, your initiative did not jeopardize the ritual—it only assisted in hastening its completion.”

Caelan stood dumbfounded as she listened. She had never met Krueger in person, but she had heard much about him. Her old mentor Donnovus had thought him as dangerous and unpredictable as the storms he controlled. Ever since he had ignored the orders of the omnipotents and had taken the title Stormlord, Lyvene had considered him a traitor, even to the point of voting for his death at the Grand Conclave Tribunal. In all, his presence here could not be good. The way Rochlof spoke to him, it seemed clear the warpwolf was not surprised by his arrival; in fact, he had apparently been expecting the Stormlord. She had been misled, but to what end?

Krueger turned and considered her again, and Caelan could not help but tremble at the unimaginable power held just behind those cold, staring eyes. She realized the feeling was similar to what she had felt when she was held in the dragon’s gaze.

“Rochlof tells me you have proven most capable.” His eyes bored into her; he seemed to assess her like a merchant assessing a prize horse at auction. “I understand you believe these acts against the nexus are a deliberate deed by one of our order. Tell me, why would someone do such a thing?”

Caelan swallowed hard. “I do not know, Potent. To willingly invite blight to infect the veins of Orboros is madness.”

One side of Krueger’s mouth turned up in a sneer. “Madness, indeed.” He paused. “And what of our order’s failings to curb the growing influence of Everblight? Its refusal to truly acknowledge the danger the disembodied dragon poses to everything we claim to stand for? What about the omnipotents’ dogmatic dedication to archaic traditions and meaningless protocols as cataclysm looms over everything? What would you call that?”

Caelan tried to answer, but her mouth was dry and she could summon no words while held transfixed by Krueger’s stare. From what she had heard, it was Krueger himself who had stood in the way of progress against Everblight in the recent past. She felt confounded. Lightning flashed again, and thunder boomed after it.

“What you suspect is true,” the Stormlord said. “The dragon’s attacks on the veins of Orboros have been coordinated by one within our Circle. Each attack is actually part of a greater ritual.”

The shock of Krueger’s words finally overrode Caelan’s muteness. “But why? Why would one of our order do this?”

“Everblight is unlike any other of his kind. He is divided among his chosen warlocks. This division makes him weaker physically than his fully formed brothers, but it also makes his elimination nearly impossible.” Krueger motioned toward the ring of standing stones surrounding them. “Those of our cabal have a unique relationship with the power of Orboros flowing beneath the crust of Caen. We are always connected to it. Even the weakest among us can feel its pulse. The strongest of us can tap more deeply into those currents to sense the world through its flows. We are all connected by its strands.”

Krueger did not wait for her to respond. “In a similar fashion, so are the dragons connected through the blight and the power of their athancs. If certain nexuses are infused with the dragons’ blight, the resonance of their energy will react to it as the dragons move across the face of Caen. The echoes of their movement will be perceptible by those of us attuned to it, through the veins of Orboros. Like a spider feeling vibrations from disturbances in its web.”

Realization dawned on Caelan as she took in Krueger’s words. “You did this. You’re going to use the ley line network to track Everblight’s warlocks.”

Krueger’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and it took all of Caelan’s strength not to quail before his glare. He said, “With this I will be able to track all of Toruk’s progeny. Never again will we be blind to their actions or movements. The elimination of Everblight by his siblings is only a part of what I have set in motion.”

“But your actions have compromised the entire network,” Caelan protested. “There is no telling what long-term damage the blight might cause.”

Krueger dismissed this with a deep breath. “Everblight has already roused his siblings against him. There is no more time to wait, no more time to plan. What matter is some minor damage to the ley lines when compared to the potential devastation of the cataclysm already at hand?” Krueger scowled, and the storm above seemed to darken with his expression. “I will no longer cower in the shadows and do nothing, as the omnipotents would have it. My actions will give us the power to guide the inevitable conflict to a conclusion that will see our order thrive instead of ending with this world reduced to ash.”

Caelan shook her head in shocked disbelief. She could not even begin to fathom what had just been revealed to her. Before she could speak again, she felt a gut-wrenching sensation overwhelm her—the sudden presence of something else entering the sacred circle.

Behind Krueger, atop a rocky outcropping farther up the mountain peak, stood a slender figure draped in flowing robes. Despite the distance, Caelan could see the flesh of his exposed hands, which looked unnaturally rotted as they clasped a long, slender staff of white wood.

Krueger turned and spared the figure a moment’s attention before turning back to Caelan.

“There are many who believe as I do. Who wish to return our order to the guiding force it once was.” The Stormlord’s hard voice softened. “The goals I seek cannot be achieved by me alone.” He turned and motioned for Rochlof to rise. “You, much like Rochlof, are imbued with unique gifts. What you have accomplished cannot be discounted.” His fierce gaze locked once more upon Caelan. “Join me, Caelan. Help me finish the ritual and destroy the threat that Everblight represents.”

“No,” Caelan said, the strength and immediacy of her conviction surprising even her. “I cannot condone or be a part of what you are doing. You have no idea what the consequences of these actions might be.” She heard Donnovus’ words ring in her voice as she spoke. “This rashness will only lead to greater strife. I will not allow this.”

The air around Krueger began to crackle with power, and any softness in his voice vanished instantly. “You will not allow it? You overstep your authority, Waykeeper. You will obey me. Remember your place.”

“I serve Lyvene, not you.” Caelan swallowed hard but her nerve held. “And beyond her, I serve the omnipotents, whose will you openly defy.”

Caelan looked back up at the figure above them. She sensed something, a blighted echo that told her this strange individual was a messenger of a dragon. She hastily considered all the knowledge of the dragons she had heard during her time within the Circle and what she had personally witnessed. She imagined looking down on Immoren from high above, picturing the scars she had witnessed across its face. The pieces fell into place, and she knew where she needed to go.

Krueger sent lightning dancing across his spear. “You cannot stop me, Waykeeper. I will not allow it.”

Caelan was painfully aware of how easily the Stormlord could strike her down. If he had intended to kill her, though, she felt certain he would have done so immediately upon his arrival. He had enough enemies to deal with now without creating more within his own order. She suspected he did not wish to antagonize Lyvene if he could avoid it.

She fixed Krueger with her own defiant stare. “Perhaps not. But as you said, I will not cower in the shadows and do nothing when devastation looms.” As soon as the words left her lips, power flooded her as she tapped into the energies below the site. There was a loud crack and a flash of verdant green and then Caelan was gone.

“She presents a . . . difficulty,” Krueger said.

Rochlof’s eyes narrowed, and he felt the cold weight of his potent’s implication settle over him. “It will not come to that,” he said.

“Can you be sure?” Krueger replied. He took a step toward Rochlof. Despite towering over the druid, Rochlof felt the urge to shrink back, away from the undeniable power of the Stormlord.

“I will convince her that what we do is necessary,” Rochlof said.

Krueger nodded. “I would rather not waste such a resource— she is skilled—but she cannot hinder this work. It is nearly complete.”

“I—” Rochlof began, but his body was suddenly wracked by a powerful spasm. The blight surged beneath his skin, and pain hammered him to his knees. He felt spines erupt along his back, then melt away in a tide of caustic slime. The fur on his right hand sloughed away, revealing thick, grey scales. Through the pain, he bent his will toward containing the spasm, pouring his flagging energy into controlling the warping that twisted his body. He succeeded—mostly. His right hand remained a scaled talon, which he clutched to his chest as he rose to his feet again.

Krueger stood, unmoving, only paces away. The Stormlord’s eyes were twin glaciers where pity or compassion could find no purchase. “I could not have stated your personal stake in our success better than this,” he said, his lips turning up in a cold smile.

“Yes,” Rochlof grunted. “The cure you promised. . .”

“The cure I still promise,” Krueger replied.

“I need it now,” Rochlof said.

“If it were so easy to bestow, I would have healed you already. We must finish this endeavor before there is time for such work. Succeed, and you will be cured. Fail, and . . .” Krueger inclined his head toward Rochlof’s twisted claw.

“I will not fail,” Rochlof said. “I will do what must be done.” Krueger nodded. “Preserve this resource if you can, but its sacrifice would be a tolerable loss.”
Anger blazed within Rochlof’s chest. The Stormlord would not even say her name; to him she was only a tool, a means to an end. Rochlof had felt Caelan’s spirit mingled with his own during the cleansing rituals, and he had come to admire her relentless strength and optimism. The thought of crushing the life from her body or tearing her apart with tooth and claw turned his stomach.

“We have an understanding,” Krueger said. It was not a question.

Rochlof had no reply. There was nothing left to say.

Krueger watched the pureblood disappear in a flash of emerald light, his course guided by the Stormlord’s power. He paused for a moment to consider, then turned again to look up toward Blighterghast’s emissary. He could feel the dragon’s immense will pressing down on his mind, channeled through the wasted creature. The time was nearly upon him.

A shadow moved just outside the circle behind him. Krueger did not bother to turn toward it. “I will send you after them. Ensure neither attempts to interfere with my plans.” The shadow shifted and formed into the shape of a massive figure clad in fur and armor. The Wolf of Orboros’ bronze wolf helm was missing, revealing a wild tangle of jet-black hair and a thick beard on a square face.

The Wolf answered Krueger, the pitch of his voice far higher than one would expect from such a mountain of a man. “As you command, Stormlord, so I shall obey.”