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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 37

Passing Mount Jesmun for only the third time in his life, Storm once again scanned it from top to bottom and couldn’t find a single living thing anywhere on it. Even from his aerial position there wasn’t anything to be found, not a blade of grass or the faintest trickle of water. Aside from the pictures of the moon sent back by Apollo 11, it was the deadest looking place he’d ever seen. Even snow didn’t stick to the top of it.

Lorelei had only seen the mountain once before when she passed it last year on her way to find him, but she agreed with his assessment. Jesmun was a complete wasteland.

Once past Jesmun, the Cliff Road curved away from the mountains to skirt the Bloodlands, a rough triangle of mountainous land between the Cliff Mountains, the Hell Road, and the Cliff Road. The apex of the triangle ended about 50 leagues south of Nahor. It was inhabited by were-creatures of every kind.

The Hell Road was Carrzulm’s only land exit from the impassable Cliff Mountains that surrounded their jungle empire. It wound through a series of treacherous passes in the mountains to the west of the southern empire before finally reaching the vast reaches of the Bitstsah Swamp on the other side. The mountains and the swamp were both infested with giants who’d rather eat humans than parley with them and many a caravan attempting the journey had disappeared to the last man, never to be seen again. The Bitstsah was also home to countless disgusting trolls and swamp creatures of every kind.

The Hell Road, what there was of it, hugged the base of the mountains to avoid the worst of the monsters until finally emerging along the southern triangle of the Bloodlands. Storm wasn’t sure which was worse; the Hell Road or the Bloodlands. He’d heard enough stories about both to curdle his blood. When he’d first heard about the were-creatures in the Bloodlands, he’d thought it was a joke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

The Cliff Road swung far wide of the Bloodlands by 10 or 15 miles but even that wasn’t always enough. Caravans taking the Cliff Road suffered enough attacks for Storm to eventually conclude the stories were real even if he’d never seen the were-creatures himself.

It had taken them two days to reach Mount Jesmun. Now it was behind them as they skirted the Bloodlands. Since Pünon’s death they hadn’t been attacked or seen anyone who looked even slightly interested in them. After leaving Serpenthead Peak, they’d landed at one of the villages that dotted the Cliff Road to replenish their depleted supplies and the only interest anyone had taken in them was their pegasi. It had been all the confirmation Storm needed that Pünon had indeed been the only spy dogging their tracks.

If he’d known about the conversation taking place at that very moment between a false god and a dead giant he would have assessed their situation very differently.

* * * * *

In a place far beyond the reach of human eyes, Adrammelech stared balefully at the demon prostrating itself before him. “Are you ready for your first assignment as a demon?” he asked the former frost giant.

The dead frost giant, his essence unable to find rest and without hope of a future, had, like all of his kind, been transformed into a demon when he died. Now called Urthromun, the new demon nodded in fear before his unholy master. “I await your command, Master,” it hissed in terror.

“Then I command you to seek vengeance on the mortal who killed you.”

Adrammelech had been furious at losing Pünon’s services. The treacherous priest had served him well and cheaply as a means to keep an eye on Storm and Lorelei. It had also been a stick in the eye of Tartak that one of his priests should serve another. It was a petty revenge for all the slights Tartak had visited on him since their arrival on this world, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Now the luck of the draw had given Urthromun into his service and he could use the demon’s fury at the loss of his giant form as a goad to kill Storm for him.

Urthromun’s eyes lit up. “You’re sending me to the mortal realms to kill him?”

Once a Nephilim was raised as a demon, they were barred from the mortal realms unless summoned by magic or sent there by their Fallen master. The Fallen were reluctant to do that because the recreated Nephilim were as dangerous to their own followers as to any others and catching them after they were turned loose was difficult. Adrammelech let none of that show in his expression.

“The mortal must be killed but,” Adrammelech towered over the groveling demon, “if you bring back the woman who is with him, alive and unharmed, I will turn you loose in the mortal realms to kill without limit.” It was a lie, of course, but the demon was still new to the ways of the Fallen. He would believe it.

Urthromun’s hideous face, a ruined version of his original features, twisted into a terrible grimace of utter hatred and fury. His anger at losing his mortal form was unquenchable. Short of violent death, the Nephilim lived nearly forever. He wanted revenge for the loss of all that had been his.

“Send me!” he roared.

* * * * *

The werewolf lounged back on the granite outcropping, basking in the bright sun. There were few enough of his kind who could enjoy it as he did and he was determined to make the most of it.

A hint of strangeness tugged at his hyper-sensitive perceptions and he froze, panning his head slowly back and forth, searching for the cause. He found it, away in the east, two misshapen, winged forms in the sky. He studied them cautiously as they drew nearer until they finally resolved themselves into a pair of pegasi with riders on their backs. He narrowed his eyes as they grew closer; it was a Biqah woman and a barbarian swordsman.

He paused, his ears twitching nervously.

His powerful senses, both physical and arcane, told him more about them. The woman had a touch of the divine around her, with no hint of The Six tainting her. The man – he hesitated – was even more powerful, with a strange inner core of energy burning inside him. Although he wasn’t in his full beast form, his lips drew back over his fangs in a fearful snarl.

He forced himself to remain perfectly still as they flew past, willing himself to be unseen, unnoticed. He’d suffered enough because of strange powers during the last year and whatever these two were he didn’t want any part of them. He held himself still. Better to be unseen than to risk combat with strangers possessed of unknown powers.

Keep going, keep going, he told them silently, keep going.

Silent, still, and unseen, he maintained his vigil as they flew past, unaware of their fearsome observer.

* * * * *

At their current rate, without having to fight off an attack every day, Storm estimated they’d reach Nahor around noon the next day. He mentioned it to Lorelei as they cleared away the remains of their evening meal and prepared to relax a little before going to sleep.

“If we stop at one of the outlying villages to replenish our supplies, we won’t have to stop again before we reach my tribe,” she mused.

Storm put an arm around her shoulders, drawing her near. “I’d thought about that myself.” He poked a stick at the fire and a shower of sparks swirled up in response. He followed them up into the sky until the last of them went out. “There are also a lot of Temples to Adrammelech there too. He won’t need Pünon to spy on us in that place.”

“That’s why I said one of the outlying villages.” She snuggled closer.

He nodded absently. “Yeah. I’m just trying to figure the odds of them having lookouts in those villages. It’s what I’d do if I were him.”

She gasped with shock at the blasphemy. “If you were him?”

He repressed a sigh. Lorelei had never known any world except Gaia. Intellectually, she might agree with him that The Six were monsters but she’d grown up thinking of them as gods. It was a big hurdle for her to overcome. He turned his head and looked down at her, waiting expectantly.

Lorelei bit her lip at his expression. “I know, I know,” she muttered. “I hate them too, especially Adrammelech. It’s just hard getting use to thinking of them as, I don’t know,” she waved a hand in air, “not gods.”

He kissed her on the forehead. “I know. I’m from Earth so it’s easy for me to see them as just monsters but it’s a lot harder for you.”

She laughed low and quiet. “Just monsters?” She shook her head. “Well, for your information, those just monsters have the power to turn you inside out with the flick of a finger.”

“Nope. Remember? They can’t directly harm anyone who isn’t one of their own followers.”

She stared into the fire. “I know Aram told us that but it doesn’t make any sense.”

The fire crackled and popped as they stared into it’s depths.

“What I haven’t figured yet is if it’s any use to us knowing about it,” Storm said finally.

“Well, you better figure something out,” she told. “Half of my tribe still follow Adrammelech and they’ll kill us without hesitation if he tells them to, not to mention I was banished on pain of death.” She sat up and turned to look him square in the face. “How are you going aven . . . catch my father’s killer,” she corrected herself hurriedly, “if we get killed the moment we show our faces?”

“If we fly into their camp on our pegasi, will that slow them down?” he asked curiously.

She seesawed her hand in the air. “It’ll surprise them,” she admitted, “but not for more than a few heartbeats. After that –” She drew a finger across her throat.

He shifted his buttocks on the soft prairie dirt, creating a form-fitting seat for himself. “A few heartbeats,” he mused. “That might be enough.”

She moved further away so she could see him without turning her head. “Enough for what?”

He leaned forward, doodling idly in the dirt with his stick. “Well, the Gettysburg Address lasted for less than two minutes and it changed the course of history.” He saw her expression and added, “A famous speech one of our leaders gave a long time ago during a civil war.” She nodded dutifully, even though it wasn’t a very satisfactory explanation. “The point is, the right words don’t have to be very long or complicated. They just have to be the right words.” He lapsed into silence, staring thoughtfully at the fire.

She moved back against him again. “Alright, let’s say you come up with some magic words to keep them from killing us on sight or on Adrammelech’s orders, how are you going to catch whoever killed my father?” She felt him tense at her question. “I’m not going to slap you again or throw a fit,” she informed him, “I’m past that now, but if we can’t find out who did it, all this was for nothing.”

He grinned. “It’s a regular whodunit, isn’t it?”

She turned her neck to stare at him. “Hunh?”

“On Earth we had storytellers who made their living by making up crime stories and the point of the stories was to figure out ‘whodunit’, who committed the crime.”

Unexpectedly, she giggled. “That’s a silly word.”

He grinned in response. “Yeah, I guess. Like I said, people are people, here or there.”

“So, how are you going to figure out whodunit?” she snickered.

Storm thought back to all the murder mystery books he’d read and all the TV shows he watched, as well the occasional conversation with his police friend. “I have to talk to everyone who saw Crowsotarri that day, put together a timeline of who saw him first and where, who saw him next and where, and so on. Then I need to talk to Klah about finding his body; why he was out there, what position the body was in, all that.” He paused. “I also need to find out where those arrows came from.”

Lorelei elbowed him. “I told you, they were mine from the day I humiliated Menewa at the festival.”

Storm nodded impatiently. “Yeah, I know. But who collected them from the festival? They didn’t just pull themselves out of the target you know.”

Lorelei waved dismissively. “Oh, that’s easy. It was Klah. He got into a huge argument with my father about it later that same day and he was waving them all over th . . .” Her voice trailed off as she realized the implications of what she was saying.

Storm watched her sadly.

She shook her head. “No. It can’t be. They were friends! Someone must have stolen the arrows from him. It has to be!

“You said they’d been friends when they were young but they broke over Crowsotarri following the Lord of Light,” Storm reminded her gently, knowing how painful this was for her.

“They reconciled after the fighting that night,” she protested weakly.

“Did they?” Storm worried his lip then plunged ahead. “Or did Klah just pretend to reconcile with Crowsotarri?” Another though occurred to him. “Did anyone else on the Adrammelech side ‘realize the error of their ways’ and come over to your side because of the fighting that night?” He made quote marks in the air when he said it.

She shook her head dumbly. Tears were threatening to well up in her eyes.

“So, the only man who changed his mind after the fighting broke out was the same man who had your arrows after the festival and found Crowsotarri’s body when he was killed with those same arrows,” Storm summarized. He cautiously pulled Lorelei closer. When she didn’t resist, he added, “I’m sorry, but that makes him my number one suspect.”

“There must be some explanation.” Lorelei’s voice was filled with tears he couldn’t see because her face was buried in his chest.

“It’ll have to be the best one in history.” He paused as a new thought occurred to him. “You know what the clincher will be though?” She shook her head. “If we get there and find out he’s gone back to the Adrammelech side –”

“The Namida,” Lorelei sobbed.

“The Namida,” he agreed. “If he’s gone back to the Namida half of the tribe, that will pretty well confirm his earlier ‘conversion’ was just a sham, a ruse to get close to Crowsotarri.” He sighed. “Treason always hurts so much because it comes from people you thought were your friends and could be trusted.

“He pretended to convert so he could kill him,” Lorelei cried softly. Her shoulders heaved and she broke into open tears.

Storm stroked her hair gently.

They stayed like that for a long time.

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