Chapter 18: Unexpected Encounters

Chapter 18: Unexpected Encounters

It was a rare morning when Boudreaux woke up before Arden. With less ale than usual to sleep off, and with his nerves still bristling from Arden’s troubling tale, he found himself with his eyes open, staring up at the ceiling in the hazy silence of first light. 

The truth was, however, that he awoke thinking about X’andria. More than anyone else he knew, hers was a spirit of sunny enthusiasm and unbridled curiosity. To see fear cast dark shadows over her usually bright eyes was deeply troubling.

And where’s that damn Ruprecht? Boudreaux thought irritably. They knew he was hanging out at some temple in Hillcrest. But he was gone for days on end, and he seemed to Boudreaux to be turning more suspicious and secretive on each of the rare occasions they saw each other. Next time I see him, we’ll have a serious talk, Boudreaux thought. It’s time for Ruprecht to snap out of it and start helping the friends who saved his life.

He propped himself up on his elbows and looked around the room. Gnome was gone. That was typical. In fact Boudreaux could not think of a single day when he had risen, that Gnome was still at home. Ruprecht’s bed was also empty. Of course it is, Boudreaux frowned. He’s still with that Hillcrest creep he thinks so highly of.

X’andria was gone.

What the hell? Boudreaux ejected himself into the air and onto his feet like he was some kind of acrobat. Pounding across the room and patting the furs of her bed, his hands confirmed what his eyes knew to be true. 

Concern welled up quickly inside Boudreaux. It filled his broad chest and head with an anxious desire to act, to hit something, to destroy it. He turned around several times as if he might somehow come upon the culprit responsible for her absence.

“Hey, Arden.” He settled for waking up his friend. “Arden, get up, man. X’andria’s gone.”

“Wh-wha’s up?” Arden flailed beneath his furs and lurched to his feet. Arden’s nerves were wired like a wild animal’s, and even though he was still half-dreaming, he stood, stark naked, with his fists clenched like he was ready for whatever threat might be approaching.

Immediately Boudreaux regretted waking his friend. First, he hated to be woken up himself. Second, he was now staring at a completely nude Arden.

“Sorry, man,” Boudreaux turned his eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry I woke you up. It’s just… X’andria’s gone.”

Arden’s head was slowly beginning to clear.

“That’s weird,” he replied, reaching casually for his trousers. “She’s usually not even awake yet when we leave for The Fields.” Reading Boudreaux’s alarmed expression Arden continued, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about X’andria, it’s that she always keeps you guessing. I’m sure she’ll be back over there reading by the time we come home tonight.”

It was a tough training day for Arden. Boudreaux was relentless. The force of his blows seemed somehow to have magnified. And that was saying something. The powerful half-elf was stoically silent for most of the day and appeared focused on causing devastation with every strike.

“I think I might be nearing the end, Boudreaux,” Arden winced. It was mid-afternoon, he had at least two cracked ribs that whined when he moved, and he did not even want to see the bruising that was surely waiting for him beneath his armor.

Boudreaux relaxed his stance and dropped the tip of his blade heavily into the earth where, by its weight alone, it lodged several inches deep. He stared inscrutably out into the trees and seemed not even to be breathing heavily.

“She’ll be alright, Boudreaux. X’andria can take care of herself.” Arden’s soft words floated to him like a light breeze against a stone wall.

Boudreaux remained motionless. Arden stood squinting, and hurting, unsure if his friend had even heard him.

“I guess I just don’t know,” Boudreaux finally spoke, “if any of us will be alright, Arden.” He shifted his gaze to meet Arden’s eyes now. “I’ve never told anyone about it, but when we were in that hole, at the end, I came face to face with that stone fiend.”

Arden watched in silence as the color drained from his friend’s face.

“It owned me completely, Arden, like I was some feeble doll. I was thrust back into moments of my childhood I’d tried to forget long ago. I was forced to relive some of my worst memories. And it made me fight myself, Arden. Terrifying. But it was not really me, exactly, it was that thing pretending to be me. It was toying with me, playing with me in some kind of arena where it was not only my opponent, but it was the arena too, and the audience, and the earth, and the sky.” Boudreaux ran out of words.

“But you survived, Boudreaux. We all did.” Arden looked imploringly into the depths of his friend’s eyes. “And we will survive again. Ohlen told us all to get stronger, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Goodness knows, I better be stronger after all the abuse you’ve been doling out today.” He allowed himself a grin.

They walked back to the lodge in silence. Arden was limping slightly, but he could tell that Boudreaux’s mood was at least a little lighter than when the day had begun.

In spite of his pain and fatigue, Arden went back into the forest that night. Retracing his steps from the evening before was easy. Even though he was always careful to tread lightly, day-old human bootprints were simple to discern indeed.

But tonight Arden was on high alert. Not yet close to the scene of the destruction, he took note of the animals rustling in the bushes, the chorus of the crickets, the hooting of the owls. The further he walked, and the more attention he paid, the more he realized how oddly silent the wood was becoming.

It must be near.

Arden froze, nostrils flaring. He closed his eyes to focus his attention on sound and smell. The forest was so eerily quiet.

He picked up a foreign scent. Faint. Days old. But as he locked onto it, he recognized the unmistakably rich and pungent odor of putrefaction.

Arden nearly gagged.

What in the world have I found? he wondered, as he dropped gingerly to his hands and knees and continued forward, crawling on all fours like a bloodhound.

He was moving in the right direction. The olfactory stamp was not so much getting stronger as it was becoming more broadly present. It felt as though the forest itself was intentionally issuing forth the evidence to lead him in his investigation.

Arden’s ribs complained bitterly. He would not be able to continue to crawl with his face near the earth. But just as he was about to stand up, he heard something coming.

It was crashing. Limbs were breaking and leaves were crackling. It rushed toward him with an oddly lurching gait.

Sweat moistened the back of Arden’s neck. Here we go then, he thought grimly, as he jumped up into fighting stance, steel flashing quickly into both of his powerful hands. Whatever it was, Arden had decided he did not like it very much. 

The thing was approaching. He heard it breathing hard, with heavy, rasping heaves. It seemed almost to be stumbling. Close by now, the trajectory would take it by him to his left.

Arden maneuvered to engage. Ignoring the pain in his chest, he bounded toward the interloper, bracing himself for whatever monstrosity he might find.

But Arden did not encounter some huge lumbering beast or freak of nature. Instead he intercepted a phenomenally dirty, skinny man with short white hair. He wore tattered clothing, and was clutching a grotesque severed arm.

Between the rotten limb and abundant general filth, the man smelled horrendous. He stumbled along with one of his legs maimed and barely useable, blood stained his dirty white robes.

With one sword still held aloft as a precaution, Arden shouted at the unfortunate soul to stop.

The man tried to freeze, but instead teetered dangerously on legs unwilling to hold him much longer. He turned his dirty face to Arden, revealing a crazed and terrified expression. Arden stared back in shocked disbelief.

“Ohlen?” He fumbled for words. “My god, what’s happened to you?”

The Iron Axe was not too crowded tonight. Only Gertrude, the younger of the two sisters, was working. Gertrude was not very pleasant, Boudreaux had decided, but that did not stop him from ordering what was, even for him, an impressive amount of ale.

With each cup of the dark golden brew, the pointy edges of worry about their current predicament became duller. As he drank, Boudreaux convinced himself that X’andria would be back at the cottage when he got home that night. He entertained the fantasy that Ohlen would return soon as well. And he even imagined some stern and satisfying conversations between himself and Ruprecht that involved some good old-fashioned two-fisted convincing.

Boudreaux smiled at the thought.

Leaving the Iron Axe, he took a slightly longer route home. With the amount of ale he had ingested, a walk before bed would do him some good. He ventured north almost to Hillcrest before finding a dark corner to relieve himself in. Feeling much lighter, he turned around and began swaying back along the boardwalks of Westwood.

There were not too many people out this late, and none he passed showed any interest in conversation. So he walked on in silence back toward their cottage until the sight of two cloaked figures coming toward him gave him pause.

Boudreaux stopped and stared drunkenly at them as they approached. And then it dawned on him.

“Ruprecht?” he called. “Is that you?”

The two stopped in mid-step.

Boudreaux advanced jauntily toward them. “Is that you, Ruprecht?” he asked again. “Lower your hoods.”

Boudreaux was almost upon them when one of them finally answered proudly, “Yes, Boudreaux, it is I, Ruprecht.” And Ruprecht lowered his hood with a distrustful scowl.

“Well why don’t you introduce me to your friend that I’ve heard so much about?” Boudreaux was talking too loudly. The scowl annoyed him. Ruprecht annoyed him. And the ale was not helping anything.

“Calm down, Boudreaux. This is Dortmund. Dortmund is the cleric of the Hillcrest Temple, Boudreaux. I don’t expect you to understand, but he’s a very important person, and we were just on our way back to the temple.” Ruprecht spoke as though Boudreaux were a dim-witted child.

They stood there awkwardly, Boudreaux making no move to allow them easy passage.

“Does Mister Important speak?” Boudreaux mocked. “Do you speak, Dorton?”

“Dort-mund,” came the deliberate hiss from beneath the hood. “My name is Dortmund. And we have things to attend to, sir, if you will excuse us.”

“Soon enough,” Boudreaux slurred. “But I have some things to tell Ruprecht first.”

“We’re going,” Dortmund commanded, and grabbed Ruprecht’s arm.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Boudreaux persisted, reaching out now to block their progress.

Dortmund extended one pale skinny hand and lightly touched Boudreaux’s outstretched arm. What Boudreaux felt next was agony. Long, pulsating jolts of searing pain originated in his arm and scoured every inch of his body before exiting him through his feet into the wooden boards beneath them. Fully conscious during this torture, Boudreaux was aware of his huge frame involuntarily convulsing up and down, even though he was completely powerless to move or even to talk.

When Dortmund finally released him from the torment, the huge man crumpled to the ground like a heavy sail that has been released from its mast. He lay motionless, gasping like a fish pulled from the ocean, his eyes staring straight ahead.The last Boudreaux remembered of the encounter was Ruprecht’s terrified and bewildered expression as he lingered above Boudreaux’s inert body, before scampering away to follow the hooded Dortmund into the darkness.


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