Chapter 98: Bait and Switch
The Windspear Hills in summer were not much different from how they had been in late spring. The ground was decorated with tiny summer blossoms, too short-stemmed to be torn apart by the winds that had given the district its name, and wild strawberries were ripening in some of the more sheltered spots. On the exposed hilltops, grasses were already yellowing, the life bleached out of them by the summer sun. Several of the smaller creeks had dried up, not to return until the autumn rains replenished their sources, but a few larger streams, fed by snow melting in faraway mountains, still held water; clusters of wildflowers lined their banks. The sun burned down from a perfectly clear sky, and if not for the near-constant breezes, heat and lack of shelter would have made travelling in the rocky hills unbearable instead of merely unpleasant.
The werewolves had, of course, not been gracious enough to leave any obvious signs of their activities. There was no trace of them in the area where Ember, Minsc and Yoshimo had first encountered them, and even though the group did find the occasional pile of gnawed, sun-bleached bones, it was impossible to tell exactly what had been gnawing on the bones. They came across the remnants of campfires far more often than anything that could possibly be linked to werewolves, and when they did follow a trail in the afternoon of the second day of the hunt, it was not a trail that they expected to lead them to the creatures.
"It is on the move," Yoshimo murmured, his attention fixed on a small mound of dirt and rubble near the bank of a dried-up stream. The freshly disturbed soil, still collapsing back into the ground, might not get them any closer to their primary prey, but it did promise a welcome diversion from the fruitless hunt, and, with any luck, the possibility of getting Minsc a decent set of armour.
Without a word, Mazzy and Minsc trained their bows on the moving end of the soil bulge. The creature beneath it had noticed the group by now, and started to pick up speed as it burrowed through the dry, dusty ground, heading straight towards them. A few heartbeats later, the ankheg burst through the surface of the soil in a shower of dust and gravel, right in front of Ember and Yoshimo. Large green mandibles snapped at them, first at Yoshimo and then at Ember, but both of them dodged smoothly out of the creature's way, providing an opening for the group's two archers. The giant and the halfling peppered the ankheg with arrows; some deflected harmlessly off chitin plates, while others struck vulnerable flesh in between the segments of armour. Hissing with fury, the creature spat globs of acidic fluid in the direction of Minsc and Mazzy, but they were out of its reach; its acid spattered a patch of gravel a few feet in front of them.
Edwin spoke. A set of carefully aimed magic missiles struck the akheg's left side, shattering at least one limb. Another volley struck its jaw, breaking the creature's main weapon. Hissing and gargling, the ankheg tried to spit through its broken mouth; it twisted and turned as if trying to face all its attackers at once. It did not notice Anomen as he approached from behind; completely ignored by the creature, the cleric raised his war hammer and brought it down on the ankheg's skull. There was a loud crack, and its writhing body went limp.
"Well done, friends!" Mazzy cried, and Minsc roared with glee. The fight had gone exceedingly well; none of the group had been harmed, and most of the ankheg's hide was intact. There would be more than enough plates to make a decent set of armour, even for someone as large as Minsc. The blacksmith in Trademeet will certainly be able to assemble it, Ember mused, and we're more likely to get a good price from him than from anyone else in Amn.
Minsc drew a dagger from his belt and moved towards the fallen beast, ready and eager to start skinning it, then halted. "Boo says someone is coming!" he announced, looking around suspiciously.
Four figures were approaching. They wore a mixture of chainmail and plate, and had drawn swords in their hands; two of them also held shields. They ran towards Ember and her companions in an odd, loping gait, and long tufts of fur surrounded their elongated snouts.
"Helm's beard," Anomen gasped. His mouth fell open in surprise.
"Werewolves... in armour?" Mazzy said, sounding as confused as Ember felt at the strange sight.
"Beasts!" one of the werewolves snarled. "Curs! Your terror ends here!"
"It is you who are the terror!" Minsc shouted. "Be afraid, evil, for justice has come for you!"
"Brave words from one so foul!" another werewolf laughed. "Have at you!"
The strange, armed werewolves fell upon the group. Ember found herself in a duel with one of the shieldbearers, and to begin with, she seemed to have the upper hand; she even landed a few blows across the werewolf's shoulders. Then, the creature seemed to somehow adjust to her fighting style, and in the span of a few moments, Ember went from attacking to fighting for her life. The werewolf was far more skilled with a blade than she ever had been - at least now she could see why these werewolves would want to use swords, she thought frantically as she narrowly deflected a high, quick jab that would have skewered her chest - and attacked her with a methodical relentlessness that she'd never have expected from a creature that she'd always heard described as volatile and ferocious. It almost felt like fighting in a nightmare; nothing added up!
Ember and the werewolf danced around each other for what felt like ages, the creature blocking her at every turn, and continually forcing her to draw back with well-aimed jabs and slashes. One of the other werewolves fell to the ground with a gaping hole in its chest; Ember's opponent howled with rage, and lunged at her. She raised her shield to block the vicious blow, but met only air; with a quick twist, the werewolf had turned the strike into a feint, and the attack landed far lower on her body. Her left side exploded in agony as the werewolf's blade slashed through her armour, across her ribs, and into the softer tissues of her belly.
Deep. Blood. Too much blood...
Acting on instinct, she reached for the gaping wound and willed it to heal. A glow surrounded her hands as the fire of her essence coursed through her, and the severed flesh began to knit, slowing the bleeding to a trickle. The werewolf took a step backwards, a look of utter astonishment on its face.
It never saw Minsc rush up and bring his sword down on its neck.
Struggling to stand, Ember watched with relief as her enemy crumpled to the ground, all but cut in two. She let herself fall to her knees and began to cast healing spells, short ones at first, then more complicated ones as she felt more able to focus; her injury had to be dealt with as quickly as possible. Minsc hovered over her as she worked, distraught at the idea that he might lose yet another witch. "I'll be fine," she muttered to him, and started a longer healing spell -
"What have we done?!" Anomen cried, his voice ringing with horror and despair.
Startled, Ember looked up, and saw.
Four bodies lay on the ground around them, but it was not the bodies of werewolves. The armoured figures that she and her friends had just dispatched now held human forms; the forms of two squires and two knights of Anomen's Order. The one who had almost killed Ember stared up at the sky with pale blue eyes that had already taken on the dull, glassy look of death. His helmet had fallen off, leaving his face in plain view, and easily recognizable.
Ember's mind seemed to fill with muffled silence; she blocked out the sound of Minsc's hysterical screaming, watched without seeing as Mazzy pulled a stunned Anomen to the side of one of the fallen, and paid no heed to Edwin and Yoshimo's confused, angry denials of what had just happened.
It could not be denied, and it could not be undone.
They had killed Ajantis.
One moment, they had been werewolves. The next moment, they had been men.
As devastating as the sight that greeted the party when the illusion fell had been - for it was indeed an illusion, and not true lycanthropy - Mazzy took some small comfort in the fact that one of the knights had survived. The man, a paladin named Sir Cadril, was brought back from the brink of death through Anomen's healing spells. He and his troupe, he told the group, had been hunting orcs for Lord Firkraag, and had indeed thought themselves to be fighting a pack of orcs!
As Anomen put it, a most foul ruse had been played upon them all, and it had cost three worthy men their lives. There was only one course of action: Lord Firkraag must be questioned, and if he was the one responsible for the fatal illusion, he must be brought to justice. The honour of the deceased knights and that of the living demanded no less!
She did not know where they might find Lord Firkraag, and her companions had wounds, both emotional and physical, which needed attending, but Sir Cadril proved himself able to help with both those problems. He directed them to the home of Garren Windspear, who was once the baron of the region but now lived in a humble cabin with his young son and two servants. The erstwhile baron had aided the knights in their orc hunt, and when the group of beaten and bloodied adventurers arrived on his doorstep, he welcomed them all into his home. In no time, he and his servants provided a hot meal, clean water and bandages, and readied a large room for them all to sleep in. He instructed them all to rest; in the morning, he said, he would tell them all that he knew of Lord Jierdan Firkraag.
Mazzy glanced around the room. Sir Cadril was already asleep, and mercifully, so was Minsc; the giant ranger had all but lost his senses upon seeing that he had unwittingly killed a friend, and knowing that he had saved his charge's life in doing so was not much of a consolation. Ember sat on a bedroll, trying to mend the large tear in her armour, but Mazzy could tell it'd need the touch of an expert leatherworker to restore it to full quality. The girl herself looked a little feverish - not that that wasn't to be expected after an injury to the bowels - and her face was streaked with tears, but she said very little. Anomen sat beside her. He had said much earlier, lamenting the loss of his brothers-in-arms, bemoaning the stain on their honour, and cursing whomever was responsible, but now he was as quiet as Ember. Edwin... Mazzy sighed quietly. At first, the wizard had been very insulted that anyone would dare trick him in such a fashion, but by now he was absorbed in his research, just as he was every night. He did not appear to be significantly affected by the death of a former travelmate, she noted with no little displeasure.
Yoshimo stood by the window and looked out into the darkness. He held a small dagger in his hand, and absentmindedly fiddled with it.
"Do you see anything?" she asked.
"No," he replied. "But Yoshimo will not be caught off guard again." Mazzy nodded in understanding, and let him be.
Whatever their host could tell them in the morning, she sincerely hoped it would be useful.