A fire smouldered in the alleyway, the boxes which once served as cover for the entrance feeding the flames. In the street beyond lay several corpses, blackened and charred. The fire lapped at the walls of Gyleon’s Magickal Oddments, and as we stumbled into the street I saw that the windows had been broken and the stock taken. Gyleon was an orc with an eye for the obscure, a pretty elvish bride and a hearty laugh. Probably not someone Madam Genocide could let live his life.
“We have to run,” said Hodrick, bent over, gasping for breath. “Run as far and as fast as we can.”
“But where?” I asked. “Nowhere is safe from a monster like this.”
“Anywhere but here,” he replied.
The east road out of town toward Enyhelon seemed to be smoking somewhat less than that toward the city centre, so I turned back the way we’d came in. We tried to make good time, but Hodrick had a killer hangover and we’d both inhaled so much ash that we hacked like plague victims. The signs of Ethe’Loriel’s devastation were everywhere. Shops had been reduced to kindling and charred corpses littered the streets. But we didn’t have time to stop and bury them. Madam Genocide was still at large.
Hodrick and I didn’t talk. What was there to talk about? As we reached the outskirts, a familiar voice shocked me out of my reverie.
“You look like you got hit in the face with a fire elemental, Hodrick. You too, Gaston.” said Aerie, as she stepped out from camouflage, mud coating reapplied. The encounter with Ethe’Loriel had left us covered in soot, ash, and not a little blood, but that was the least of our worries.
“Have you seen any other survivors, Aerie?” I asked, with Hodrick being preoccupied with massaging his hangover.
“Survivors of what?” she replied.
“Ethe’Loriel?” I queried. Aerie offered no more than a shrug. “The raid on the Brotherhood hall?”
“What, we were attacked? I’ve been chilling in the forest, collecting some neat mushrooms, haven’t heard jack,” she replied. I spotted a large basket in her left hand, filled to the brim. “I guess there hasn’t been so many travellers going into town. Quite a few leaving, though.”
“Maybe we can, uh, chill in the forest for a bit, hey Gaston?” asked Hodrick, head in his hands. “Aerie, got any mushrooms for the hangover from hell?”
“I’ll see if I can whip something up,” offered Aerie, as she led us into the woods, toward her cabin hideout.
As we sat around the table in Aerie’s log cabin sipping mushroom soup, it was almost possible to forget the horror which we’d been through, just for a few minutes. As Hodrick drank his second serving, I filled Aerie in on the details. She’s always been one to stick to herself, but she cared about the Brothers too.
“Fulmina, Brent, all the Brothers are gone. Burned to a crisp by the demon who killed my family,” I cried.
“Hey, while we still live, the Brotherhood does too,” suggested Hodrick. “Besides, there are chapters all over the continent. They won’t let this stand.”
“Monsters like this will face enemies everywhere they go. People won’t stand for it,” offered Aerie. “We won’t stand for it.”
As we toasted the dead for a third serving of mushroom soup, I started to wonder if there was any magic in them. They certainly seemed to dull the pain of Madam Genocide slaughtering my second family, so that seemed quite a strong kind of magic to me. Perhaps the company of good friends had a little magic in it too.
Then a shadow passed over us. The sun was low in the sky, but it shone in through the windows, dappled by the trees. I stood up and went to the window to see what was happening.
Hanging low in the sky above the forest was a pure white flying horse, beating its wings gracefully. Atop the flying horse was a familiar figure, coated in ash and soot, yet gleaming beneath that: Ethe’Loriel. I squinted my eyes and saw that she had a magical glow in one hand, which spun and then seemed to form an arrow. An arrow pointing at us. Ethe’Loriel turned her horse in midair, and it flapped huge wings like an angel of death toward us.
“She’s back!” I shouted. “We have to go, now!”
A pocket of forest in the distance exploded into flame, the trees crackling and burning with a boom.
Aerie, Hodrick and I bundled out the door in a rush. I turned to the sky to see Madam Genocide reaching closer, moving faster than we could run. The arrow in her hand had been replaced with balls of flame, which she hurled indiscriminately into the forest.
“She’s on a flying horse!” cried Aerie, hastily caking her face with fresh mud. “We can’t outrun her. Either we stand and fight, or we find a way to hide.”
“Some of the greatest thugs and bandits I’ve ever known tried to fight her. They didn’t land a single blow,” said Hodrick.
“But if we try to hide, she’ll just burn the forest around us,” I pointed out. “Surely at some point we have to fight a menace like this?”
“At some point, yes. But Fulmina didn’t die so that you could throw your life away. We need to survive so that we can rally the Brothers from across the whole continent against this monster. Then we might have a chance,” replied Hodrick, sheathing his axe behind his back.
“There’s one place which won’t burn. A hidden grotto fed by a spring and blessed by old gods,” said Aerie. Hodrick and I nodded our assent.
From the sky came a faint shout over the booms of fresh fires, “Come out, little rats. Let the fires scour you clean.”