In the world of Elyria, the luminous comet known as the Eye streaks in towards Angelica from the system’s edge, becoming visible in the night sky. It’s hard to ignore the sudden appearance of such a traveler in the night sky and, for many cultures, the Eye is an omen that acts as a harbinger for the dark time of Longest Night to come. For the Al’Tifali - the Waerd and the Dras - the Eye is a direct link to the Two-Fold Queen. In this time of year, the Waerd feel her gaze keenly and throw themselves into “the great work” of keeping the balance. Under the scrutiny of the Two-Fold Queen, the Dras likewise aim to impress, often traveling to nearby settlements to help with the sick and the injured, or to see to the funerary rights of the recently deceased. Many cultures – as we mentioned last year – use the appearance of the Eye as a reminder to devote time to remembering and honoring those who have passed on.
But there are many other strange practices and observances during this time. Perhaps one of the strangest is observed by those that live in the settlement of Derriben, the festivities to honor past heroes spans an entire year and all pay respects to an unnamed Waerd and a Dras physician named Ilnajeren. Called the The Queen's Carnival, the celebration commemorates a story involving the pair and a shape-shifting monster known as the Lantern Man that is said to be able to take on the forms of fallen loved ones to lure the unsuspecting to their death. During the carnival, a unique form of theater is performed in the form of an elaborate game of hide and seek. Every year, one of the townsfolk adopts the role of the monster, donning disguises and costumes to “hunt” the town. Meanwhile, another pair of participants take the role of Ilnajeren and the Waerd and proceed to hunt down the creature before it can “take any lives.” It is said to be good fortune when the creature can be found before its hunt is successful. The rules are complex but the game is said to be great fun and, despite the town’s sleepy reputation at other times, it becomes an enticing fancy for travelers when the Eye rides the inky black between stars.
It had rained the night before and, even as she strode across the dusty rock path, the Waerd could smell the moisture in the air. It wouldn’t last, she knew that. By mid-morning it will have wicked its way back into the air, save for the drops trapped in the water vault, cut deep into the rock face at the back of the settlement. Still, she welcomed the scent of dew on the air and the cool crunch of not-quite-damp rock at her feet. The Waerd knew that, in just a few weeks, the sun would reach the tipping point and begin to dip its arc closer and closer to the horizon. When that happened, the mornings would turn cold. The dew would turn to frost. She kept it to herself, but she liked those times less. Some people took the cold with ease, but this Waerd was not one of them.
As she considered the weather, she climbed the steps to the sanctum. First up and around the edge of the water vault’s roof, then down the other side into the caverns the Waerd had dug there over the generations. Even when Angelica’s light could penetrate all the way into the settlement, it would pass over the sanctum - sequestered as it was - hidden away from the rest of the world. But it was here that she would find the Set who had summoned her from her bed.
The Waerd descended the steps into the sanctum, pausing to reflect a moment on each of the murals carved into the rock wall. The first mural depicted The Breaking, the next The Second War, then The Wandering, all leading up to the discovery of the grotto and the founding of the settlement around it. It was the history of the settlement, as the Waerd knew it, but secretly, she had always wondered at parts of it. She could not see how anyone, even with the help of the Two-Fold Queen, could have survived something as catastrophic as the Burning. She didn’t believe it was real. She suspected the same was true for much of their past, though she seldom shared this thought with anyone. The Waerd don’t discuss their doubts and she was the Waerd.
“Jaleh,” a reedy voice rasped its way down the hall to her, “tarry not.” Nodding to hide her irritation, she turned away from the murals on the wall and crossed the last few meters of the hallway to enter the sanctum proper.
As usual, the sanctum was a place of acrid smoke and bitter air. It was here that the Set burned the shokufeh for insight. A sticky mixture of resins and flower petals, the shokufeh was said to carry the will of the Queen. Those wise enough to interpret what the visions showed them would understand the Two-Fold Queen’s plans, and the part the Waerd played in them. In this settlement the members of the Set that saw to interpreting the Queen’s will were Nima, the oldest of the Set, and Gul, who had joined the settlement from afar several seasons ago. It was Gul who had called her to the sanctum this morning, and it was Gul who chastised her for pausing to reflect in the corridor. A Waerd would never speak ill of their fellows, but secretly Jaleh disliked Gul intensely. He was haughty, even vain, and Jaleh could not see how such traits brought the old man closer to the Queen.
Today, he sat cross-legged atop a pile of pillows; a smoking bowl of shokufeh nestled between his legs wreathed him in the bitter smoke.
“Angelica’s light touches a distant land of water and grass, Jaleh. Our Queen recoils from what that light reveals: The plan is thrown aside; the scales are unbalanced.”
Gul always started this way, so Jaleh waited for him to finish before speaking.
“I am shown a village beside a lake. Death hunts where it has not been welcomed.” Gul closed his eyes and shook his head as if to clear it, his silver hair shifting back and forth across the dark skin of his brow. He took a deep breath, taking in a lungful of the shokufeh, held it, and expelled it before opening his eyes once more. They were red and wet, tears collecting at the fold where eye met nose.
“Jaleh, you must stop death. Too many die, too soon.”
She nodded, kneeling in front of Gul, meeting him eye to eye.
“Tell me Gul, where is this village? And how do I stop death?”
Gul leaned back, closing his eyes once more as he tilted his head upward, as if looking into the heavens beyond the ceiling of the room, beyond the lids of his closed eyes.
“Ride east until you cross the mountains,” he began, “then north until you find the great river. Follow its flow. You will find the village.”
Jaleh nodded, “And how am I to stop death?”
Gul opened his eyes to meet Jaleh’s gaze, “One stops death with life, Jaleh. As one blinds the light with darkness, and the darkness with the light.” And with that proclamation, Gul fell silent, closing his eyes once again. The audience was over.
Jaleh had her instructions. And she knew she had to hurry. Gul had bid her ride east over the mountains. Ride. Horses were rare in the settlement, the loss of even one would be felt by the community. The matter must be urgent to allow one to range so far from the settlement. Returning to her rooms, she stopped along the way to gather the supplies she would need from the kitchens, the armory and finally, the stables. All along the way, she was greeted with curious looks. No one would question her need, of course, but many were curious as to the task she was on, given the things she took. As she rode through the gates of the settlement, a small crowd gathered to watch her go in the morning light.
But no one tarried for long; the heat of the day would soon be upon them.
Ilnajeren stood in the doorway, the early morning sun streaming through around him, casting him in silhouette. The stench of death poured out of the doorway. He shook his head sadly, oily locks of his black hair shifting uneasily across his pallid brow. The smell was familiar to him now. This sickness did something to the dead; it made the scent of their decay acrid, oversweet, and cloying. It was the same rot that had taken the Gasofs earlier in the week. He turned to his assistant and grimaced.
“Keep everyone away. This will spread if we let it.” He moved over to the windows and threw open the shutters while he spoke, allowing the miasma of death to dissipate.
Aren, his assistant, nodded and turned to the small crowd that had been gathering, motioning them back. She was a young Dras, younger than Ilnajeren, but she commanded the same authority and respect he did among the villagers. They were Dras doctors, sent to deal with this disease and armed with a host of medical knowledge no one in the village, not its elders nor its shamans, could rival.
Ilnajeren decided that he would allow the miasma to clear completely before he went in to the hovel to clear out the unfortunate victims. While he waited, he packed his mask full of aromatic herbs and unfolded the leather apron that would protect his robes and his person from the bodies’ fluids. He feared what he would see when he entered. The same bulging eyes, discolored throats, and bloody vomit that had marked the fallen so far. The disease made no sense to Ilnajeren. The victims were fine, showing no sign of problem, until suddenly, in the middle of the night, they would take ill; and always entire households. He had found no sign of a source, but events like these were more in line with poisons or venoms than illnesses, in Ilnajeren’s experience. It troubled him; Derriben was no metropolis and its politics, if they could be called that, usually involved which flock of sheep could graze where. This was no place for a poisoner to ply their trade. But, if this was truly a disease, it was something wholly new, and Ilnajeren had no idea how to proceed. He and Aren had been sent here because the balance had been thrown in death’s favor but, so far, they had managed little but to comfort the survivors.
“It’s the same, isn’t it?” Aren’s voice was quiet, her tone somber.
Ilnajeren nodded, brushing dust from his black robe and donning his mask, “I’ll know for sure in a moment, but it seems so.”
Aren blinked slowly as she took a deep breath, fighting back the frustration she shared with Ilnajeren. Rather than reply she walked a quick circle around Ilnajeren, inspecting to make sure everything was where it should be. Finally, she patted his shoulder.
“It’s time,” was all she said. Ilnajeren nodded and stepped into the hovel.
Even in the mask, the stench was appalling. There were three dead: a small Neran child, no older than five, and her parents. Ilnajeren didn’t know them personally, but he remembered meeting them when he and Aren first arrived in Derriben. The girl had been intelligent and, Ilnajeren suddenly remembered, delightfully curious. She’d never met a Dras or a doctor before and she had spent their welcoming dinner asking Aren questions about medicine, about Dras, about the Two-Fold Queen. Her parents had been embarrassed, but Ilnajeren had assured them that curiosity was a sign of greatness. He’d told them she would make a fine doctor someday, just wait. He sighed as he gathered her body up in arms and brought her outside to place on the cart. Later Aren and he would clean each body and prepare them for a proper Neran burial. That was the job; when he could not save a life, he saw to its repose and its afterlife.
He repeated the task for each of the girl’s parents, placing their bodies next to each other on the cart and then covering the trio with a blanket of linen. Only once the bodies were out, did he return to their home to clean up the mess. The miasma would linger if he didn’t; his people had learned as much when the plague had washed across the realm. The miasma would linger where the dead had fallen and only with proper cleansing could the miasma be truly removed, banishing the disease it caused.
The bodies properly secured, he stopped down next to the cart to pick up the bucket and rags he had prepared for this purpose. The bucket contained a bitter mixture of vinegar and herbs in water. It was a personal recipe, but one he found particularly effective. Aren joined him as he turned back to the hovel, carrying her own bucket and cloth. The task was grisly and arduous, but Aren’s assistance meant the task would be complete before the sun sank, at least. And besides, when one found themselves on their knees in a pool of blood, it was always better to have friends there with you.
Despite his optimism, Angelica had begun its descent into the horizon before they had finished. He had completely lost track of the time, and likely would not have noticed until the light had left completely, if the light from the doorway had not been blocked by the shadow of a thin-framed figure standing there, wrapped in red homespun. The wrap of cloth included a shawl, wrapped as a hood, that obscured his face, but Ilnajeren could tell he was Waerd. Ilnajeren stood and nodded to the door.
Hoping a Waerd in this area would understand the Neran tongue, he met the stranger's eyes and said, “Greetings, Waerd. I would clasp hands, but…” gesturing to the slick of blood and vomit covering his apron.
“No need. You are tending to these people.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I am,” Ilnajeren nodded, confirming the statement, “As best as I’m able, at any rate. What can we do for you?” He gestured to Aren, who had stood to join them.
The Waerd inclined his head, “I came to see what you had learned.”
Ilnajeren cocked his head to the side and asked, “Are your people experiencing the same disease? I’m afraid we don’t know much, yet.”
“One's people are not.” For a moment, it seemed as if that was all the Waerd had to offer. Silence crept by. Aren began to clear her throat, perhaps intent on carrying the conversation forward, but the Waerd stepped in, once more.
“Currach is a day’s ride north. Do you know it?”
Ilnajeren and Aren both shook their heads, “We come from the east, from Lanerÿ.”
“If you look for Currach, you won’t find it.” Again, the Waerd fell silent, as if waiting.
Ilnajeren stepped closer to the Waerd, his brow knitted in confusion, “What is this about? We aren’t looking for Currach.”
“Its family is dead,” the Waerd pointed to the cart behind him on the other side of the doorway, “they died the same way.”
Not entirely certain the Waerd was using the same terminology he was, he asked, “Family? Do you mean one house or one settlement?”
"Many houses. Many kin."
"The entire town?" he asked sadly.
“I assume so. Death had taken them all by the time I arrived.”
Aren gasped despite herself. The deaths they had seen were already alarming, but neither doctor had yet realized this could threaten an entire settlement. They had agreed to come, when they were asked, as a courtesy. Soon the Eye would bring the Queen’s Gaze to Elyria and both Aren and Ilnajeren had already intended to take their practice to the surrounding villages, to see to the living and the dead, doing the work of the Two-Fold Queen. They saw treating the folk of Derriben as a simple extension of this practice, but they had failed to see the stakes.
“Perhaps,” Ilnajeren said to Aren, “A survivor of Currach has brought the disease here?”
“No.” The Waerd said, simply, “Death took them all, at once.”
“What?!” Ilnajeren was incredulous. No disease, not even the plague, had ever stricken anywhere so suddenly, or quickly.
“They died as they were feasting. When I arrived, the ravens had already had their way, but it seemed the entire settlement-family was accounted for.”
“It could be the food perhaps?” Aren offered, “A miasma might have laid itself upon the grain?” It was a good suggestion, Ilnajeren had to admit. The Waerd, for his part, simply shrugged.
“What made you think to come here, Waerd?” Ilnajeren asked.
“I am chasing death.” He shrugged again, “And death is here.”
Ilnajeren shook his head, “That’s odd to hear. It’s not like the Waerd to seek out and treat the ill.”
The Waerd shrugged a third time, “I am not here to treat the ill. I am here to restore the balance.”
With that, the Waerd turned and stepped out of the door way, approaching the cart. Ilnajeren followed him out.
“If you aren’t here to heal them, how will you restore the balance?” he asked the question politely, neutrally, but Ilnajeren understood the Waerd. He feared the answer.
The Waerd took several steps away, stopping only to respond.
“I will stop death.” He said, as he waved, “It is my task.” And with that, the Waerd walked off down the street, leaving Aren and Ilnajeren to consider his words as they returned to their grisly task.
Neither better understood the enigmatic Waerd or his words by the time dinner was served in the small common room of the inn where they stayed. As he picked through a stew of mutton and local vegetables, Ilnajeren said as much to Aren.
“It doesn’t make any sense.” A look of frustration on his face, he paused to take a long pull from a tankard that had been set in front of him. It was some sort of spirit, but Ilnajeren wasn’t really tasting it, lost in thought as he was.
“The Waerd seldom make any sense. They claim to be agents of the balance, but they always kill and maim.” Aren’s voice was disapproving.
“Well, clearly not always.” Ilnajeren said, an edge of forced levity in his voice, “Unless that Waerd intends to kill death itself.”
He pulled a chunk of bread from the flat, round loaf sitting on the table between them, “I wouldn’t put it past a Waerd, honestly. But, what of this, what did he call it, Curlach?”
“Currach,” Aren began, “And I asked – it’s a real place. They’re foresters and carpenters. Coopers specifically.” She too stopped to drink from her own cup, “At least, they were.”
“We should see for ourselves.” Ilnajeren said, mopping the last of his stew with another chunk of bread, “We might learn something important about this disease.”
Aren nodded, taking the last of the bread and setting it on her side of the table, “We can at least put them all to rest. I doubt the Waerd thought to do so.”
“Oh, leave him be, Aren. They don’t think about life and death the way we do.”
At that Aren gave a sigh and stood, “I’ll make the necessary preparations then. We should leave at first light.”
Just as the Waerd said, it took a day of driving their wagon north to reach Currach. They came upon the village just as Luna reached its peak in the night sky. The village was as the Waerd had described it; in the gloom one might even think the villagers were simply sitting quietly at the long tables and benches laid out in the central square near the well. Only the calls from the crows' black forms moving across the tabletops and the foul stench of a death by sickness gave anything away. Otherwise the entire village, all twelve structures, including the mill, were silent. Silent as the grave.
“It’s the illness.” Aren said, wrinkling her nose at the odor.
“And it hasn’t dissipated in the days since they died.” Ilnajeren confirmed.
Ilnajeren dismounted the wagon, motioning for Aren to stay put as he walked towards the square at the center of the settlement. The weather had turned, and a low fog was slowly rolling in to pool around the tables and the well nearby. The crows that picked at the bodies were bold, none fled his approach and he was forced to scare them off, clapping his hands together and yelling at them to fly away. Even then, they did not go far, taking perches on nearby rooftops to keep an eye on their meal.
The damage they had done was extensive, but enough remained for Ilnajeren to see that the Waerd was right. This was the same sickness. He walked back to the wagon and bid Aren to follow, stopping only to pull two torches from their supplies and spark flint against steel to get them lit. He handed one to Aren and held the other high. By their sputtering light, they could see the telltale bloody vomit all over the remains of the town’s feast. Those bodies that had flesh on their necks left after the raven’s gorged themselves were discolored, as if bruised.
“All of them at their seats. It’s as if they succumbed in unison!” Aren exclaimed, as she slowly walked around the table. Ilnajeren could only nod.
“Wait,” Aren began, “Where did that one go?” She was pointing to a seat at the end of one of the tables, a seat that Ilnajeren assumed was a position of honor. A place had been set there, but there was no corpse.
“Perhaps we had a survivor after all.” Ilnajeren considered, turning away from the table to scan the buildings of the village.
The village was cold and still. Long shadows – pools of impenetrable black – stretched between the low thatch roofs of the wattle and daub houses while Luna’s pale blue light mixed with the fog to cast everything in a corpse-like pallor. Everything, that is, but the lone figure standing at the edge of the square between a two-story cottage. It was a child, a little girl, wearing a long night dress.
“There!” Ilnajeren cried, pointing.
Aren strode towards the girl, “Are you all right, child?”
“Help me!” The girl said. Her voice was sad, quavering, scared. And yet, it somehow sounded familiar to Ilnajeren.
“I’m all alone.” The girl sobbed.
“Aren, wait.” He said, a chill suddenly crawling its way from head to groin down his spine, “Something’s wrong.”
Aren either didn’t hear or she didn’t listen. Ilnajeren raised a hand and drew in a breath to call out again, but Aren reached the girl before he could speak. The child backed away from Aren, shaking her head. Aren knelt before her, her arms open wide to reassure the child.
“It’s all right,” Aren’s voice was faint as it drifted over the fog that swirled at their feet, eddies and whorls of white vapor breaking against Aren’s knees like waves on a rocky shore.
Time seemed to slow to Ilnajeren. Every hair on his neck stood on end, his skin crawled, and a flood of fear and revulsion rushed through his core. Dread weighed heavily on his shoulders and he seemed trapped in his own flesh, unable to speak out, or will his legs to bring him closer to Aren and the child. Something was wrong and it seemed as if there was nothing Ilnajeren could do.
“Come here child, it’s all right.” Aren said again, “We can take you to Derriben, you’re safe now.”
Aren again held out her arms and, this time, the child stepped forward, bringing her fully into Luna’s light for the first time. Aren gasped.
“You!” She cried, shying away and tumbling to the ground as her instinct to back away and her need to stand fought each other. She scrambled away on the ground, but the child’s advance was inexorable. Frozen as he was, Ilnajeren could do nothing but watch, eyes wide with fear.
“Safe now,” the child said, her voice now seeming cruel. She looked up at Ilnajeren, giving him a good look at her face for the first time. The breath stuck in his throat and he gagged, choking on the scream that was trying to escape his lungs. It was the face of the child they had carried out of the house in Derriben the day before. The child who had died with her parents.
“It’s all right,” she said, as she stood over Aren and reached down to grab the Dras by the throat, “I’m here for you now.”
Aren screamed as the girl seemed to loom large in the moonlight for a moment. It was as if there were two forms standing in her place. The girl whose little hands now squeezed Aren’s life away, and some vast and looming darkness, a shape like bubbling tar extruded dripping tentacles wrapped around Aren’s throat. Each bubble of tar burst to reveal an eye or a gaping, razor-toothed maw.
Ilnajeren groaned as he struggled to regain control of himself. Fear had never been pleasant to Ilnajeren, but it had never robbed him of his ability to act before. He wanted to move, to act – to save Aren if he could – but his body seemed unwilling to respond. Instead he stood locked in place as Aren’s eyes bulged. The creature-child slithered its oily pseudopod across Aren's face and oozed thick, black sludge into her ears, nose, and mouth, transforming Aren’s gasps into gurgles as she choked and struggled in mute anguish.
She convulsed, and a strange light seemed to glow in her chest, streaming out from the folds of her robe, through her skin. It traveled up her chest into her neck, then her mouth until the profane feelers were extracted, wrapped around a nimbus of light so purely white that it was almost blinding. The child was gone now, as if erased by the light, leaving only the creature. It opened one of its toothy mouths and consumed the light it had extracted from Aren. Its other tentacles released the Dras, and she collapsed to the dirt, vomiting dark blood.
“She was delectable,” the creature said from its many mouths, their speech combining into a chorus of voices. Ilnajeren realized he recognized many of them. They were the dead of Derriben. The victims of this “disease.”
“I expect no less of you,” it seethed in that chorus of dead voices as it lurched towards Ilnajeren.
Locked in terror as he was, Ilnajeren didn’t register the sound of beating hooves but, as the creature drew ever closer, that sound grew louder, until, with a neigh and the crack of leather straps against horseflesh, the Waerd leapt into the space between the creature and Ilnajeren atop a tan horse with a long golden mane.
The Waerd held the bridle in one hand. The other hand held a strange bottle. It was shaped like a dagger, but where a blade would be was instead a blade-shaped vessel of clear glass filled with dark fluid. This was affixed to an ornate silver hilt that flashed in the moonlight, seeming to the gather the light around a dense script of words engraved into the cross-guard.
“You will take no more before their time!” The Waerd bellowed at the creature as it loosed the glass dagger at the creature.
Gnashing its many jaws, the creature seemed to gather in on itself before erupting to launch itself at the Waerd. But, as the blade of the glass dagger sank into the creature’s oily flesh, it shattered, spraying the monster with its contents.
The creature howled, its flesh sizzling and bubbling effusively at each point of contact with the dagger’s dark liquid. A poison, Ilnajeren realized.
“Get on!” The Waerd yelled down to Ilnajeren, extending a hand. Ilnajeren turned to look up at the Waerd, realizing he was once again free to act. Without hesitation he grasped the Waerd’s hand and leapt, even as he was hoisted, onto the horse’s back.
“Aren!” Ilnajeren finally managed, as the Waerd kicked the horse into a gallop.
“She is gone. Death has her now.” The Waerd’s voice was flat and grim with determination as the Waerd concentrated on steering the horse through the empty village and back to the road. Only when they were on the road and well away from shadow in the moon’s light did the Waerd say anything more.
“What was that?!” questioned Ilnajeren.
“One's disease,” the Waerd said.
“That – That monster…” Ilnajeren trailed off.
“It killed every people in that village. It has been hunting one's Derriben as well.” The Waerd nodded, as if confirming Ilnajeren’s fears.
“But how?” Ilnajeren didn’t even know the right words to ask his questions. What was that beast? What had it done to Aren and the others?
“Soul Eater,” The Waerd began, “Night Shepherd,” the Waerd’s word sounded almost like a litany, “Lantern Man.”
Ilnajeren shuddered. “I thought Lantern Men were a myth!” he said.
“So did the Waerd,” snapping the reins and urging the horse into a canter once more.
“We have to warn Derriben,” Ilnajeren was almost frantic now, “They have to flee.”
“To go where?” The Waerd asked, in a low voice, “Do you think it will stop feasting if they flee?”
“What do you mean?”
“Currach. Derriben. One's Lanerÿ. It hungers. People are its feast.” The Waerd’s words were delivered calmly, but Ilnajeren shuddered in fear all the same. He could see the Waerd was right. When it was done with Derriben it would simply turn to the next settlement, and the next. How soon before it came for Lanerÿ and Ilnajeren’s family there? Days? Weeks?
“Can it be stopped?” Ilnajeren asked.
At this, the Waerd sighed, her chest heaving. He is a she, Ilnajeren realized, feeling for the first time the way the Waerd’s clothes moved around her chest as he held her around the midriff to keep his position on the horse’s back.
“I thought the chi`at'y nesdr would end this,” the Waerd trailed off, one hand absently moving to the empty scabbard at her belt.
“It didn’t look like it was enough,” Ilnajeren finished for her.
The Waerd nodded as they continued riding through the night to Derriben.
In the pale dawn's light, they rallied the town of Derriben. The town would post a watch and leave fires and torches burning all night. Anyone who saw someone who was already dead was to cry out immediately. Neither the Waerd nor Ilnajeren harbored any illusions that these precautions would stop the creature, but it might give them time to react.
“We have to kill it,” Ilnajeren said as they sat around a table in the inn with the members of the town council.
“It will not stop until we do.” The Waerd agreed.
“How?” The question came from the mayor of Derriben, now an old woman, who had been one of the village’s original founders. The well bore her name on its keystone, carved there many years ago when she had been a young journeyman mason, looking to settle.
“It reacted to poison,” Ilnajeren began, “But it did not succumb. We could try overwhelming it with poison.”
The Waerd shook her head, still wearing the tight, red-linen wrap that obscured her face.
“No,” she said, “we could not make enough in time. It will be here tonight.”
“It seems to hunt at night. What about daylight?” Ilnajeren asked.
The Waerd thought for moment, “You want to trap it?”
“If we can,” Ilnajeren nodded, “we could cage it, let Angelica’s light take it in the morning.”
“We don’t even know if daylight will do a thing.” The mayor was skeptical, to say the least.
“There must be a logical reason why it hunts at night,” Ilnajeren said.
“Fine,” the mayor said, unconvinced, “How will you do it?”
Ilnajeren and the Waerd fell silent as they considered.
“It came after me last night,” Ilnajeren offered, “it might do so again, especially now that I’ve seen it.”
“One will act as bait?” there was no hint of incredulity in the Waerd’s question.
“I seem to be good at waiting for it to take me,” Ilnajeren burned with shame, thinking of poor Aren.
“What’s to stop it from simply picking someone else? Or,” the mayor said nervously, “taking us all at once like it did Currach.
Ilnajeren looked up at the rest of the group seated at the table, “Simple,” he said, “We’ll send everyone east to Lanerÿ. My people are kind, they’ll take you in. Especially if I write a letter explaining things.”
He looked to the mayor, then to the Waerd. Finally, though with some reluctance, they agreed. The plan was set. That night, Ilnajeren and the Waerd would face the creature once more.
As they were making the last of the preparations the mayor of Derriben approached Ilnajeren and offered a small dagger.
“Take this,” she said to the lanky Dras, “It isn’t much, but it came from me grams. 'Tis true silver.”
Ilnajeren accepted the dagger with a graceful smile, “Thank you,” he said, turning it over in his hands. The blade had been etched with a design showing Angelica and Luna in a sisterly embrace. He wondered how old it was. The artwork marked it as Qindred, but the people of Derriben were Virtori Nerans. As ineffective as the tiny knife would be against the creature they hunted, Ilnajeren realized it was an heirloom and that the gesture was significant.
He looked up at the mayor and smiled, “I’ll use it to keep me safe. And, I’ll return it when the night is done.”
The mayor blushed and smiled as she returned to the preparations.
By the time Angelica sank low once again, they were ready. The town had been evacuated and, with some extra effort, one of the town’s hovels had been converted to act as their trap. Ilnajeren didn’t like it, but the plan was what it was: Ilnajeren would light candles in the house, making it the only lit home in the village. Then, Ilnajeren would lure the creature into the house. He would escape through the back door as the Waerd and her horse pulled the rope through the block and tackle that would shutter the windows and pull away the roof to reveal the bars they had built there. Ilnajeren and the Waerd would bar the doors and the creature would be trapped. Come morning the light of the sun would fill the cage and – they hoped – the creature would react to it in some way they could use to dispatch it. It was desperate. It was foolhardy. It was also the only plan they had.
Finally, the Waerd and Ilnajeren were alone, the last of Derriben’s citizens having left for Lanerÿ. Ilnajeren lit the candles and stood by the back door of the hovel. He held the tiny dagger in his hands, turning it over again and again, expending nervous energy. The Waerd stood in the doorway, ready to retreat to her place of hiding.
“If this doesn’t work,” she began before pausing, as if considering her next words, “one will die.”
“Very reassuring, Waerd. Thank you.” He said sardonically, but he knew she was right. If this plan didn’t work, there was no escaping his fate. He would die as Aren did. His soul literally ripped from his body.
The Waerd nodded and stepped out of the cottage, returning – at least Ilnajeren assumed – to her hiding place to await the arrival of the creature. Ilnajeren took a moment to panic while he waited.
It wasn’t an intentional thing. Not really. But he stopped to take stock, to make sure everything was truly ready and, in doing so, it dawned on him that he knew nothing about the Waerd. He was trusting her solely on the fact that she had saved him when the monster took Aren, but she hadn’t saved Aren. For that matter, what was she doing there? They never would have traveled to Currach if the Waerd hadn’t mentioned it first. Ilnajeren’s heart pounded in his chest, a raw crackling of energy – tension mixed with anxiety – worked its way from his core up into his throat. For a moment it was hard to breath.
Ilnajeren looked out the window into the sky, his eyes wide with fear but there, between the stars, was a luminous streak. Bright white with a black pit at its head. The Eye had begun its approach. They were under the Queen’s Gaze now. The anxiety faded. For good or ill, Ilnajeren knew that he worked for the balance. He worked for her, the Two-Fold Queen, whose eye even now looked down on him. If this was his end, it was as she willed it. There was nothing left to do but wait.
It didn’t take very long.
When Ilnajeren saw the creature again, it was as Aren. The monster had taken her form as it had taken her soul and was now walking down the little street, right past the open windows of the trapped hovel.
“Aren!” he called out.
The creature turned and smiled with Aren’s face.
“Ilnajeren,” it called as it moved through the doorway into the hovel. For a moment, he flirted with the idea that Aren had somehow survived. Perhaps it truly was her after all. How, he thought, would the monster know his name? But as it entered the cottage, the light of the candles cast a sickening shadow behind Aren and, in its shape, he could see the contours of the creature. The same misshapen and roiling mass from the night before.
“You wear her face like a masque, you monster!” He spat as he backed up towards the hovel’s back door.
“Monster?” The thing asked with Aren’s voice, “I’m not the one who left her to die when they ran. Like a coward!”
As it uttered the word, Ilnajeren was flooded with fear. He found himself once more rooted in place. The monster stepped around a table and chairs to approach him. Now fully surrounded by candlelight, Ilnajeren could see through the illusion of Aren’s form at the oily mass of the creature itself. Aren’s form lifted its arm, the creature extruded a tentacle towards Ilnajeren.
“But you won’t run this time, will you Ilnajeren?” The voice was Aren’s, but the tone was cruel and vicious. It gloated over him now. Ilnajeren knew he had but seconds left to escape, but it was as if this creature exuded fear the way a slug coats itself in slime. He tried to reach back, to unlatch the door so he could step through, but his hand simply spasmed, coming to rest on the hilt of the mayor’s tiny, silver dagger.
“Now!” A voice called from outside – the Waerd, “Now Ilnajeren!”
The monster hissed, turning at the sound of her voice and, as it did, the fear in Ilnajeren faltered just enough. He drew the tiny dagger from his belt and threw it at the creature, turning to open the door behind him.
The tiny blade arced through the space between creature and Dras and landed with a wet splash before the tip sank into the creature’s oily mass. Immediately it burst into flame and the creature roared, abandoning all pretexts and dropping Aren’s image and voice. Where the blade burned, the viscous surface of the creature hardened, charred, and cracked. It reached up to the blade with a writhing tentacle and pulled the dagger free, the tentacle charring and breaking even as the knife went clattering to the ground.
But, in all its rage, it had forgotten Ilnajeren himself. Free from the fear that had gripped him, the Dras doctor spun around and quickly slipped through the back door, slamming it closed. At the sound of the door’s closure, the Waerd spun into action, urging her horse forward with a slap of its flank as she rushed forward to bar the front door. The shutters slammed closed, a shower of straw and dirt – the remains of the roof as it was hauled out of place by the Waerd’s steed – rained to the ground in sheets. When it was done, the cage was sealed.
“We’ve done it!” Ilnajeren yelled as he came around the corner to join the Waerd, but the Waerd looked less certain.
The creature was in that house alright, but with the shutters closed they had no idea what state it was in. Another roar bellowed from within the hovel. Sounds of wood clattering about resounded and the walls shook, then everything fell silent.
“You’re as foolish as you are cowardly, Ilnajeren.” It was Aren’s voice again, “Do you really think you can hold me?”
The walls of the hovel shook again, long cracks developing in the plaster. The Waerd’s eyes widened.
“Daybreak is still hours away. Our cage may not hold.” She said, staring at the door as she drew the strange, glass blade.
They circled the hovel, inspecting the tiny cottage. It seemed the walls were holding but, even as they completed their inspection, grayish-brown smoke was rising from the now barred roof. Something within was burning.
“Your kind has always been weak, Ilnajeren.” He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the sound of Aren’s voice uttering such hatred, “It is what makes you such easy prey!”
The smoke thickened, pouring out from the seams of the window, shutters, and doors. It wouldn’t be long before the hovel itself was no more.
“What do we do?!” Ilnajeren asked, taking a few steps toward the well, “Do we put the fire out? Let it burn?”
The Waerd shook her head, “Let it burn. Be ready to fight.”
“Fight? With what? I’m a doctor not an assassin!” Ilnajeren searched for the silver dagger, forgetting already that he had left it in the cottage, stuck in the side of that creature.
Reaching into the red-linen wrap that she always wore, the Waerd produced a handful of long, bluish needles - each one about a third of a meter in length. She handed the needles to Ilnajeren.
Ilnajeren took the needles and inspected them, “You want me to poke it? With these?”
The Waerd turned back to the hovel, now clearly burning, and said simply, “Silver.”
Ilnajeren understood. They may not kill that thing, but they could hurt it. Maybe even drive it off.
The sounds from within the hovel had died down, replaced by the crackling of fire and the billowing column of smoke that rose from the roofless structure. Ilnajeren thought for a moment that perhaps the creature had died but, just as his hopes were rising, they were squashed by cruel laughter. Once again in Aren’s voice.
“I. Am. Death. You cannot kill me!” The house shook again. The smoke grew dark and black. “Not with fire. Not with steel. Not even with your poisons or your silver.”
Ilnajeren looked up at the column of black smoke. For a moment it seemed to be lit from within. Tentacles writhed within the black smoke. He shouted to the Waerd and pointed, just as a crack of thunder roared across the cloudless sky. As the sound faded, the image in the smoke disappeared, and all fell silent.
Together, the Waerd and the Dras watched the hovel burn to the ground. When its walls collapsed, the monster was nowhere to be found.
All that remained amid the ash and embers was the silver dagger the mayor had given to Ilnajeren. It was pristine; perfectly preserved despite the heat and fire.
They waited another day, then another, but the creature did not return. Finally, convinced the creature would not return, they journeyed to Lanerÿ to retrieve the people of Derriben and then go their separate ways. When the time came, they found themselves on the outskirts of Derriben, the Waerd astride her golden horse.
“We didn’t kill it,” Ilnajeren said, “Will you return home?”
“No,” the Waerd said looking at the Eye, visible in the evening sky, “The Queen has given me a task and I cannot abandon it.”
“You shame me.” Ilnajeren responded.
The Waerd cocked her head to the side, confused, “How so?”
“I came here to end their illness.”
“And one has done so,” she said.
“You know I have not. That… thing is still out there.” The word thing stuck in his throat, still remembering Aren’s face, her voice. The monster had worn his friend like a mask after it had consumed her.
“Then what will one do?” As she asked it, she already knew the answer. Without waiting for a response, she simply held out her hand. Ilnajeren grasped it, allowing himself to be pulled onto the horse’s broad back.
Together, they rode in search of the Lantern Man.
Tales of Ilnajeren and the Waerd are numerous in the region. Over the course of these stories, the pair dedicate themselves to rooting out monsters and other horrors of the night. Many items and books are attributed to their work, including a book describing the best ways to convince a shape-shifter to show itself (torture and silvered needles, so the book says) and how to hunt and stalk all manner of fanciful horrors. However, there is no evidence that Ilnajeren, the Waerd, or the Lantern Man ever truly existed, and there have been no sightings of such creatures in the modern age. This does little to discourage would-be monster hunters from scouring the region at this time of year, hoping for a glimpse of the creature or some other confirmation of the old stories. Many pray that such proof will never come.