Chapter 92: The Challenge
The scene of the challenge was a stone circle, a henge, that stood in a clearing near the heart of the grove. It was outlined by twelve giant standing stones, arranged in six pairs that each supported a massive slab of rock; the stones were heavily encrusted with lichen and mosses, but the surfaces that faced into the circle were completely bare. The ground within the henge was perfectly flat, and covered by a short carpet of grasses. Here and there, scuff marks offered a glimpse of the reddish-brown soil that lay beneath the grass; scars from some previous ritual, maybe even from Faldorn's challenge, Ember guessed.
All the druids of the grove were gathered around the henge, waiting in solemn silence for the challenge master. Once he arrived and invoked the ritual of the challenge, Cernd and Faldorn would fight. As Cernd had told Ember on their way to the grove, the contestants were to fight with nothing but their own abilities; to ensure that, they would use no armor and no weapons other than a crude staff, and all blessing spells and enchantments would be stripped from them as they entered the circle - in Faldorn's case, her link to the grove would be severed. "It is not necessarily a fight to the death," Cernd had said, "but in this case..." He had not elaborated; it wasn't necessary.
The contestants were granted a single hour before the fight, to meditate and prepare. That hour was almost up.
A wizened old man, bent with age, hobbled slowly towards the henge. Long, sparse strands of white hair and beard, soaked through by the drizzling rain, hung limply around his face. He looks easily old enough to be Pauden's father, Ember mused, watching him with concern as he tottered past her. He reached the standing stones, stepped in between them, and stood up straight, gazing at the people outside the circle with piercing blue eyes that spoke of wisdom and clarity of mind, even when the rest of his body was failing him.
"I am the challenge master," the old man said in a clear voice that carried easily across the grove. "Do any here make claim to the challenge? Who is ready?"
"I, Cernd, make claim to the challenge," Cernd said, standing at the edge of the clearing, dressed in his simple robe and holding a plain staff.
"And I, Faldorn, accept!" Faldorn shouted from the opposite edge. She was equipped much as Cernd was.
"One can only hope she doesn't have something extra tucked into the rat's nest she considers to be hair," Edwin muttered; Mazzy hushed him.
As the contestants walked towards the henge, Faldorn turned her head to glare hatefully at Ember. As much as she wanted to return the glare, Ember forced herself to look calmly at the shadow druid.
"One can feel the warmth of her admiration, even from afar," Yoshimo remarked. "If our friend loses, our lives will be in danger."
"I know," Ember sighed. "If he loses, I'll challenge her. And if I lose... run."
"Minsc will not run from his witch!"
"We could never abandon you in such a fashion, my lady!"
"You won't be abandoning me," Ember said quietly, "and I'd rather have you alive than be avenged. So do as I say."
Cernd and Faldorn entered the circle from opposite sides - Faldorn stumbled for a moment as she stepped across the boundary - and stood facing each other, staves held ready for combat. The challenge master moved to the edge of the circle, and raised his hands. "The challenge starts," he intoned, and stepped out of the ring.
The two combatants circled each other warily, never taking their eyes off the other. Cernd moved with the practiced ease that came with years of training, but Faldorn had an almost feral grace; it was very hard to guess which one of them might have the upper hand. Every now and then, one of them halted for a moment to chant a quick cantrip, a simple spell designed to strengthen skin or toughen flesh; the protection the cantrips added was no match for a blade or a magical weapon, but in this fight, the slight edge they gave might be enough to turn the tide of battle.
Faldorn attacked first.
Cernd moved to block her, but she feinted away and, with a vicious grin, chanted motion into the grass under his feet. As the grass rippled around Cernd's bare feet, struggling to wrap its stiff, jointed stems around his lower legs, Cernd began a chant of his own, redirecting the river of swaying grass towards Faldorn. The plants danced maniacally for a short while, trying to obey both of the conflicting spells, then settled down and shrank back to normal size.
"(A wizard's duel would be far more exciting,)" Edwin mumbled, earning himself glares from the entire group.
Within the stone circle, Cernd struck at Faldorn, but she smoothly ducked out of the way and counterattacked, landing a solid blow on his hip. Seeming to suppress a wince, the older druid backed off, only to raise his staff and attack her a second time. She twisted sideways, neatly avoiding the blow, but this time, Cernd was ready for her; with a deft twist of his hands, he brought his staff up and sideways, catching her across the shoulder. She cried out in pain, and one of her hands lost its grip on her staff.
"You dare?!" Faldorn shouted, dancing away from Cernd. She planted her staff in the ground and, staring defiantly at him, started a chant to call lighting. A quick jab of his staff interrupted her spell, but she caught him with his guard down, and landed a solid blow across his forehead. He tumbled to the ground, landing in a cascade of muddy droplets, and lay still.
"Had enough, weakling?" Faldorn shouted. Cernd groaned, and moved slightly, but did not stand up. Ember's heart sank. What was wrong with him? Why wasn't he getting up? She couldn't have hit him that hard, could she?
"It will be a pleasure to wipe your scourge from the land!" With a harsh laugh, Faldorn began to invoke a summoning spell.
"Dread wolf," one of the druids near Ember grumbled. "Just like when she killed Gragus."
With a growl that sounded more like a wild animal than a man, Cernd abruptly sprang to his feet. His hair rippled and spread across his face and body, his robe tore apart and fell from him in rags, his face elongated into a snout, his teeth and nails grew into fangs and claws. Within the space of a few heartbeats, he had changed completely, and lunged at Faldorn in the shape of a werewolf.
The shadow druid howled with disbelief and rage. Her spell forgotten, she raised her staff to try to ward off the werewolf that had been Cernd, but he - was it even still him? - snatched the staff from her hands, broke it in two, and fell upon her. The shadow druid screamed as the werewolf pinned her to the muddy ground; she struggled for a moment, but couldn't stop him from wrapping his large, clawed hands around her head and violently wrenching it.
The crowd watched in perfect silence as the werewolf stepped away from the body and sank to his knees. A shudder passed through him, and his werewolf features melted away, turning him into a human once more. Naked aside from the mud that was splattered over most of his body, he kneeled on the wet grass, gazing steadily at the challenge master.
The old man stepped into the circle, and raised his hands. "All honor to the Great Druid!" he cried. "Nature has her champion!"
The grove erupted in cheers.
"You knew all along that you'd beat her," Ember said to Cernd that evening. Faldorn's remaining supporters had been rounded up, the rain had given way to a clear, starry sky, and the festivities celebrating the change of leadership were finally winding down. Most of her companions were still sitting near the large bonfire, but Minsc had fallen asleep under the branches of a young sweetmaple, Boo nestled securely in one large palm. She and Cernd sat some distance away from the others, on the trunk of a fallen pine tree. Cernd had a new robe and a couple new feathers in his hair, and the Great Druid's staff, the Staff of Thunder and Lightning, was cradled in his lap.
"I was not certain," the new Great Druid replied, and passed her a wicker bowl full of wild strawberries. "Her lack of understanding of my nature gave me an upper hand, but I still needed the opportunity to change. I could not risk letting her attack me in the moment of weakness before the beast takes over."
"So that's why you waited so long?"
"Yes. I needed her to feel that I was no more a threat than the dormouse is to the weasel. Her summoning spell gave me the time I needed."
Ember nodded, and popped a couple of the berries into her mouth. They were small, pale, and slightly tart, but there was a pleasant sweetness to them. "Why didn't you tell us? About what you are, I mean."
"Nature takes me as I am, but few people respond favourably to lycanthrope shapeshifters. It is easier to merely let them see how I am on the surface, and only divulge the truth if necessary," he said calmly. "However, something tells me that you are not unfamiliar with this philosophy."
Not lifting her gaze from the berries in the bowl, she picked up another one and put it in her mouth. It seemed to be sourer than the others she'd eaten.
"What you did to Faldorn, to the grove... you should not have been able to do that," he murmured. "And I sense something about you, something that is not quite right. You are not what you seem, perhaps even less so than I am."
Memories of her reception in Trademeet came back to her. And that was just for being a druid. "What... what exactly is it you seem to sense?" she asked hesitantly, and looked around; thankfully, nobody was within earshot of them.
"As you know, all of natures' creatures live in some measure of harmony with her. In yours, there is some discord. The difference is slight, but it is there; you do not have quite as much in common with nature as her other creations."
"And if I were to tell you I am... different, what would your reaction be?"
"My duty tells me to be curious; other than that, I am at a loss. I do not believe you are a danger, but I do not know what you are capable of. I... I would know what you are. You can choose not to say, and I suppose it really doesn't matter, but it would ease my mind and further our trust."
"You are right," she finally said. "I shouldn't have been able to do that to her, and I am... I am not fully human." It hurt to say it out loud.
"What are you, then?"
"Have you heard of Alaundo's prophecies, about the children of Bhaal?"
The older druid looked at her. "Yes, I have," he said. "You are one of them?"
She nodded unhappily. "The thing you sense in me is Murder. When I attacked Faldorn, it siphoned life from the grove through her bond. I try to keep it under control, but sometimes... I can't."
"I see," Cernd said, and took a few berries from the bowl. He ate them slowly, one at a time. "You stopped the fight once it touched the grove."
"The tree drops the nut, but it has no say over how it flourishes. There is a difference between who your ...father wishes you to be, and who you are. I will only hold you responsible for the latter, and from what I have seen of you, I have no reason to bear you ill will."
"Thank you, Cernd," Ember said, relief flowing through her.
"No, thank you, for trusting me," he said with a smile. "Thank you, also, for helping me reach this place in one piece." He leaned over the side of the treetrunk they sat on, picked something up from the ground, and handed it to her. "I want you to have this."
It was a scimitar. It was perfectly balanced, decorated with ornamental carvings both on the polished wood handle and on the curved blade, and it was enchanted.
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
"Yes, and like a black-tipped falcon, it is also deadly. Use it well," he said, and gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze. "I don't envy you the task of balancing your nature, but if you will take the advice of a werewolf: do not shun your darker side. It is a part of you, just like your human side. Finding their balance is not enough; find their harmony, and it might become easier."
"I understand, I think," she said. "And I'll try."
He smiled again and picked up the berry bowl. "Come, my friend, let us join your companions. The night is still young, and these delicacies are too good not to be shared."
A smile spread across her face as well as she followed Cernd to the bonfire.