The Other Side 2

Monday, February 2, 2009 - 4:14 PM

When Leoric returned, he carried a swollen, battered head with him. It dangled from one hand, lanky hair falling around the grossly distorted face like damp weeds. Behind him was the humbled figure of Merin, Leoric's constant companion, head bowed and feet light. Merin carried Leoric's weeping-face helm, with its mane of woman's hair, and cradled Leoric's terrible weapon, the Arm of Ruin, close to the chest.

Leoric was a very tall man with a thin, dour face. Though his face was wry and keen in expression, his narrow eyes were cold with the sort of hate that has grown lazy and immutable over time, staving off madness and smothering redemption. Some thought his hate had prematurely turned his hair white, but it was merely a hereditary quirk of his family line.

Avar watched Leoric's approach from a distance, seated on a mossy stone that had once been part of a small settlement. He leaned his shoulder against the long haft of his axe, folding his broad hands around it, and glanced over at the hunched, feral shape of the ghoul that slouched nearby. It glanced back at him with bright eyes, lips pulling back uncomfortably from the long, sharp teeth in an attempt to smile.

“Julian comes with him,” said Isabeau's voice, strained through the cage of the ghoul's vocal chords.

Darting his eyes back towards the path, Avar spotted three large shadows dropping down from the sky, drifting through the trees to light near Leoric. It was a harpy harridan, with two of her lesser brethren carrying Julian between them. He watched as the two smaller harpies flapped up again in a small cloud of leaves and feathers, while the harridan walked with Leoric, showing the oddly graceful swaying gait that harpies had on land. Julian was herded along by the crook of one great wing.

Isabeau, in the ghoul's body, loped a few steps forward to peer closer. “Omphale, of Beauty's Rest,” she said.

Avar simply nodded. Omphale was harridan over one of the biggest harpy flocks in the Wound, and that meant a strong alliance. Harridans were opportunists of the highest order, and if Omphale chose to join with Leoric, other harridans might also join, if for no other reason than to force Omphale to divide her spoils. He'd had little doubt that harpies would join Leoric, but they were bitter and surly creatures, and reluctant to make alliances.

Most humans certainly prefer to stay well away from harpies, Avar thought, if for no other reason but the smell. As Leoric and his companions approached, Avar's nose could already pick up the brassy, rancid sweat-and-sulfur odor surrounding the harridan.

“That means a lot of archers,” said Avar to Isabeau. “Is Tancred still at the mines?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “He is still working in the vats, trying to finish the elixir to revive the giant corpse.”

Avar shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes on Leoric, watching the harpy's constant touching of Julian. If Tancred succeeded, it would be wonderful, but Avar really didn't care so long as Tancred was working and not distracting himself by hunting down druids. "There are times when I think Tancred's ambition fogs his vision."

Isabeau nodded her ghoul's head, and then had the ghoul perform the parody of a curtsey as Leoric came closer.

“My lord Leoric,” Isabeau said.

Leoric gave the ghoul a slight, regal nod. “Lady Isabeau. Master Avar, well met again. How are my soldiers?”

“They could be better,” said Avar blandly. “But they will be. What news, my lord?”

“We have time,” announced Leoric, taking another slow step forward and raising the head he was carrying. “Fidelity sends his regard, and promises aid from his children and their followers. He instructs us to be patient; the omens are good. Hope has returned to the Wound, and her work elsewhere proceeds even though her heart is destroyed. She is tending her Tree now, looking for the words to call our master back to us.”

“May our Grandfather come again soon,” purred Omphale, nuzzling at Julian's hair. Like all harridans, she had wings as well as arms, one of which she'd wrapped around Julian's waist. Her human-like torso tapered into a woman's waist and hips, but her thighs sprouted soot-black feathers and her lower legs crooked like those of a bird. Similar plumage blanketed her upper back, where her wings spread, fringed her forearms and swept back from her lovely human face in thin feathers that flowed like stiff hair. Omphale's figure was rather more lush than most harpies, emphasized by her lack of clothing and the natural harpy posture having a tendency to push the chest forward.

Of course, Omphale was a harpy, and therefore utterly filthy. Remnants of past meals caked her chin, filth stained her leg feathers, and her skin was dusky with grime. Typical of harpies, her strong and beautiful features were deliberately scarred, giving her a permanent cruel sneer and scoring her cheeks deeply, lengthening the look of her face. Vulture talons pierced her ears and patterns of burn marks dotted her shapely torso.

“Your flock will be joining us, then?” rasped Isabeau. “What of the others?”

“Mine, and the flock at Gutcrag,” said Omphale, rubbing a hand over Julian's chest possessively.

“Lakhesis waits for Beauty to wake from her last glut, so the flock at the Manticore will not join you yet. But do keep in mind, Hope is not the only disciple in the Wound, Avar. If Beauty says we stay, then we stay. All of us.”

Leoric nodded without concern. “That is understood quite well, Omphale. I am certain, though, that if the End comes, all of Harrow's children will come forth from the Wound.”

“If the End comes,” smiled Omphale, pressing Julian's head against her breast. Julian complied like an indifferent cat. “And we hope it will. But what is this about Hope's heart being killed?”

Avar told Omphale briefly about recent events, the celebration of the Leandrite people, and what was known of who had done it.

Omphale sneered, eyes vicious. “Heroes have come to the Wound before. They came to kill the Grandfather before. They came with their chants and spells and weapons and virtues, and where are they now? Bones at Beauty's Rest. And we are still here.”

“That is true,” said Avar quietly. “And yet, we could not find the heart. They did, and they destroyed it. This means that Hope can die.”

“It will be about time,” laughed Omphale. “Yet, she was the favored one, in the beginning. So, what is to be done with those five now?”

They all looked at Leoric, who smiled slightly, and told them.

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