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April 15, 2011 / Bika

Fiction Friday: The Right of All Horde III

I’m a fickle wench. Every time I visit my little blog here I have to sit on my hands to keep myself from messing with the format, and even then it doesn’t always prevent reckless application of new designs. As you might have noticed, I changed things around again last week.

Things I like about this particular format:

  • There are a lot of sidebars on the main page, making it easier to see all the links and recent posts without scrolling…
  • Which makes it compact, so everything actually fits on one page
  • It’s neat, crisp and clean.

I don’t know yet whether I like how the body of each post is reduced to a little clip on the home page. It gives you the option to expand, but do people actually click through to read the expanded posts? I don’t know. More incentive for me to make the posts sound interesting in the title and first line, I suppose. What do you think? Does this new style do it for you, or do you prefer the old way?

Now, let’s get down to business. This is Fiction Friday, and I have another installment of Verdus’s The Right of All Horde to post for you. Will he find clues to point him toward Libby’s killer? Only one way to find out!

* * *

By the time the sun began to rise, hours after his search started, all that Verdus had learned about Libby’s murder was what didn’t happen. While there was certainly useful information to be found in knowing what hadn’t occurred, none of it seemed to get him any closer to figuring out what had. Feeling his frustrations continue to mount, he closed his eyes, blocking out the dusty and decaying campsite, and considered what little progress he’d made.

He’d deduced, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that whatever had happened to her hadn’t involved a struggle. While it was difficult to be certain, given the deterioration of the site and the length of time that it had been exposed to the elements since the killing, all of the damage seemed to be the result of natural decay. There were no violent breakages in the tent frames, no scorch marks from errant combat spells, no lingering blood stains. Whoever had killed Libby had done so in a way that she couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back, a difficult proposition given how much time it must have taken her to die. The perpetrator had also left no evidence as to how he or she had gotten Libby here in the first place, as there was no apparent reason for her to have come on her own volition.

He was also relatively certain that whatever had happened, it hadn’t been the work of the Mannoroc Coven, despite what Lighthoof and the Ghost Walker personnel seemed to think. Sure they were an obvious target at which to point fingers, seeing as how they were a warlock coven known to live in Desolace, but there was no evidence here to support the accusation. The magic used had been fel in nature, that much was easy enough to determine, but that just pointed to a warlock, not necessarily those warlocks. There was no paraphernalia left at the site of the type that the Coven was known to use, not even the kind of reagents meant to be used once and discarded. Even more telling, this site itself was nowhere near where the Coven usually operated. If it had been them, why bring her all the way out here to perform their ritual instead of doing it at their existing base? The campsite had seemingly little to offer, apart from seclusion. And if there really had been some aspect of the area which was important to their dark works, why leave afterward? There was just too much acting against the theory to believe it so readily.

While those realizations eliminated a fair number of possibilities for what had happened, there were still many more to sift through and scant little evidence to tell one from another. There were two main theories competing for the top spot on Verdus’s list. The first was that Libby had been subdued elsewhere, perhaps with a struggle, and then been transported here for the ritual. While plausible, if it were true then Verdus had likely found all the evidence here that he was going to: none. The other likely theory was that Libby had known and trusted, or at least not distrusted, her attacker. Even though that left open the slim hope of some dropped, identifiable personal effect of the killer, it wasn’t a possibility that he was comfortable thinking about.

Looking up over the hilltops bounding the camp on the east, Verdus could see the light of dawn edging over the elevated horizon. If only it could shed some figurative light on my situation instead of just the literal kind, he thought. The waxing dawnscape was marred by the silhouettes of swoops circling off to the north. The carrion birds always seemed to be circling everywhere in Desolace, just waiting for something to die so that they could…

The swoops.

The realization exploded in Verdus’s mind like a goblin siege bomb. All this time he’d been looking for scraps of physical evidence when the answers had been circling over his head in the night sky the whole time. He had more than just interpretations of weeks-old scratches and fragments to work with. He had witnesses!

Dashing out of the campsite, Verdus got on his motorcycle and rode north to where the swoops were circling. It didn’t take him long to find what had gotten their attention: a lone hyena, separated from its pack and badly wounded from a fight against some unknown beast that it had somehow survived. Reaching out to the creature through his connection to the Earthmother, Verdus could tell that the beast was terrified but unable to flee. While not intelligent, part of it still knew what the circling birds following it meant. With some gentle magic, Verdus eased the hyena’s fear and pain, thanked it for its sacrifice, and then quickly and painlessly killed it. He then lifted the beast’s carcass onto the back of his motorcycle and drove back to the campsite, sending out a silent, magical call for the swoops to follow.

Upon arriving back at the campsite, Verdus drove straight up to the ledge with the ritual circle, no longer bothering to hide his motorcycle farther away. He hoisted the fresh hyena carcass off of the back of the bike and laid it out on the center of the ledge, then looked up to the flock of swoops that had followed and reached out to their minds to beckon them down, assuring them that he meant them no harm. They complied, forming a scattered cluster on the other side of the carcass and doing the best that their instincts allowed to pay attention to him and not the fresh meat before them. The carrion birds were also clearly skittish, registering on a primitive level the unnatural wrongness of the magic that tainted the ledge.

“Thank you for braving this place to speak with me, my winged friends,” Verdus spoke formally to the birds, as much with his magic as with his words. “I seek one of your kind who knows what I must know, who has seen what I must see. Many days ago one of my kind died here. You and your kin know of all that dies in this land. Of this death, I too must know. Find me one of your kind who saw what happened and bring them here to me, and this prize shall be yours.”

The swoops followed his gestures as one, first to the ritual circle and then to the promised hyena carcass. Verdus felt comprehension of his request echo back to him through the mental link, laced with the expected tinge of greed, before the flock took off and scattered. Hours passed as the druid waited, hoping against hope, that the beasts would find what he needed, if any such witnesses remained that still remembered an event from such a long time ago, by their reckoning. Several times he had to fend off other scavengers seeking to make off with his promised prize.

It was almost noon when a pair of swoops returned, landing on the other side of the carcass but maintaining a cautious distance. One was an older bird that he recognized from before, while the other was much younger. Verdus silently thanked the elder swoop for his efforts and entreated him to be patient; he wasn’t going to hand over the prize until he knew that this new swoop had the answers he sought. Turning to the younger bird, Verdus communed with it as he had the others.

“A female of my kind died here many days ago. Did you see what happened?” he asked.

Understanding and affirmation echoed back to him. Following it was a brief flash of memory: the black-furred face of a tauren female as seen from a great height, contorted in fear and pain. Libby’s face.

Finally faced with the answers that he’d been seeking, a spike of fear stabbed through Verdus’s gut. Behind those black avian eyes lay the full recollection of the death of his friend and he was about to let that memory into his soul. Such a transfer of memory had been done before, though not often and to mixed effect. Most of the druids who had done so experienced no ill reaction. Some, though, claimed that the received memory never truly faded, that it was always there waiting just behind their eyelids, as if it had just happened. Verdus tried very hard not to think about which column he would be filed under. Expanding his connection to the swoop’s mind, he simply said, “Show me.”

The memory surged across the magical link, instantly and in its entirety. Verdus reeled as his subconscious mind struggled to unpackage, parse, and assimilate the alien experiences. He saw Libby laying supine in a dark circle on the dirt. He felt wind buffeting up against wings that weren’t his. He saw a blood elf, a female with pale skin and dark ornamented hair, sneering down into the circle, flanked by a felhound and an amused succubus. He heard Libby whimper in fear and pain. He smelled the scent of blood which promised fresh meat. He heard the elf ask, “Would you like something to eat, sister?” He felt his instincts push him to fly away from these dangerous skies. He heard Libby call out plaintively for her husband Fenniel. He heard the elf woman angrily exclaim, “That worthless fool doesn’t have a competent bone in his body. My brother is a failure.” He felt the sun on his back, warming his feathers against the unnatural chill of the air. He saw the succubus turn to the elf and just barely made out the words, “mistress Cersei.” He experienced every sight and every sound of every moment for the three hours that it took Libby to die.

It took Verdus several moments to realize that he’d come back to the present. The two swoops were patiently staring at him, awaiting his blessing to claim their prize. From his shock-ridden thoughts he managed to form a vague and feeble thanks, gesturing weakly at the carcass. If either of the birds took offense at his lack of obeisance, neither showed it as they tore into the dead hyena’s flesh. Verdus stumbled over towards his motorcycle, reaching out to lean against it for support before collapsing onto his rump in a sprawl. The memories played back over and over in his mind, though he had no idea whether that was a side effect of the magic or simply emotional trauma.

Warlock. Elf. Sister. Fenniel. Brother. Cersei. As the pieces clicked into place in his mind, numb shock coalesced into raw anger. It wasn’t a hot-blooded rage like he’d used to feel during his days as a Druid of the Talon, either. It was a cold fury that gripped his heart, a patient and perfectly rational hatred. Fenniel’s sister had done this, Cersei Dusksinger. His own family had betrayed him and stolen the person that made him happiest in life, for reasons as unfathomable as they were irrelevant.

As he recovered, Verdus realized that this memory needed to be preserved. With plans formulating in his mind of their own accord, he knew that he would need more than just his word that this had occurred. Drawing three seeds from a pouch on his belt, he worked a delicate magic, placing a copy of the memory in each for safekeeping before the magic which encapsulated it faded.

Grasping his motorcycle’s handlebars for support as he picked himself up off the dirt, Verdus knew that he couldn’t spend another moment in this foul place, not even to blast it from existence. Just being there made him feel physically ill, reinforcing his anger even further. Apathetic to the other birds swooping down to steal the prize of his witness, Verdus drove away as fast as he could. Murders past and future echoed through his mind.

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