Iron Falls. A city on the frontier of the Vesperin Empire and nestled in a craggy and craterous region of the empire where the Allora mountains leveled out into the Great Steppe. The falls, the city’s namesake, were where the Camella River began, running all the way to the southern coast of Draydar.
Due to the city’s proximity to the frontline of the Vesperin-Guardia war, it was the empire’s main military bastion and an important strategic resource. With such a strong military presence, it left little room for civilian occupancy. By design, roughly half the city made up the city’s army base, but even the other half was often filled with on- and off-duty soldiers. Despite its authoritarian appearance, there was an undercurrent of boisterousness that came when a bunch of soldiers were crammed into the same city.
That being said, there was the faintest hint of cultural influence here from the G’aarjya Desert, and the odd Zephyran merchant could be seen selling exotic spices and other goods from Guardia, much to the chagrin of the military. Their pack beasts, a species of wooly oxen known as Shall Ox, idled in the streets and reeked of unwashed animals.
The local shops and other establishments also catered heavily to the soldiers. There were taverns at nearly every street corner, and blacksmiths sold arms to every active and would-be man-at-arms that wandered through the streets.
Needless to say, it was a bit overwhelming for someone who grew up in a small countryside town.
Chamomile Mesmera had arrived in Iron Falls a few weeks ago, and was having a rough time. The young witch was an introvert at best, and the noise and bustle of a large city made her nervous. At the same time, however, she was an equal part fascinated by something of which she had only ever previously dreamt. After a few days of looking, she managed to find work as a clerical scribe for a local trading company. It was horribly dull work, but it paid 15 silver per week and included room and board. Every morning she would wake up before dawn, report to the company office, and spend the whole day copying ledgers, writing notes and letters, recording transactions, and generally waiting on the merchants hand and foot. Still, it beat manual labor, a task for which she was decidedly unfit. It also drove her crazy, as Ludwig, her familiar, was not allowed entrance to the office, despite Chamomile’s protests. He spent the days canvassing the city for rumors of occult activity and information on more lucrative work.
It was evening by the time Chamomile finished work. She stepped out into the still busy streets of Iron Falls and stretched, cracking her fingers after a long day of holding a quill. Within a minute, Ludwig the raven landed on her shoulder.
“Ugh,” Chamomile grunted.
“That bad, huh?” The raven croaked back at her.
“Marks kept making me redo one of his letters because he kept coming up with a better way to word single sentences after I was already done. Plus, his daughter keeps hanging around the office and sneering at me.”
“What’d I tell ya? There’s people like that everywhere you go.”
“I swear, next time she does that snotty little laugh at me I’m going to hex her.” She mocked the laugh with an exaggerated face.
“As much as I’d like to see that, it’s probably better for you to keep the job for now. Just because I know how much you like having a bed to sleep on and food in your belly.”
The two walked towards their usual hangout spot, an out-of-the-way tavern and cafe tucked in a back alley called The Black Spot. As it wasn’t on the main streets, it was largely avoided by the soldiers and general public, and the usual clientele were locals who wanted to get away to somewhere quiet.
Chamomile sighed as she turned the corner into the alleyway in which the cafe was located. “Please tell me you found something interesting today, Luddy.”
“Hmm, well the only thing that didn’t bore me to tears was talks about some odd traveler in town, and for once, it didn’t sound like they were talking about you.”
“I’m not that weird, am I?”
“Cammy, darling, you are truly one-of-a-kind.”
Chamomile wasn’t sure if Ludwig was joking or not, and decided to ignore the comment.
“Well, it’s better than nothing.”
A bell tinkled softly as the door to The Black Spot opened and shut as the pair entered. The establishment was crammed into an odd floorplan, likely a portion of the rest of the building that was sectioned off into its own property. The fireplace took up the main lobby area and had a number of comfy armchairs situated around it, already claimed by regulars who were deep into both books and drinks. Behind the armchairs was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that was stuffed with a myriad assortment of different books and scrolls. Chamomile had read about half of the tomes here already, but she was determined to get through all of them.
A friendly voice called from across the room. “Hey there, Cam. The usual?” This was Mara Mapleroot, the proprietor of the cafe. Mara was a half-elf woman of roughly thirty, with lightly tanned skin and long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Picking out a particularly tall and thin book, she walked down the long hallway which led out from the lobby and was lined with a row of tables tucked into nooks and with a drippy candle on each. Cammy sat down at the one on the end. It had the most comfortable seat cushion, and was far enough out of the way that no other patrons would come by to bother her.
About a minute into her book, there was a tap on the table as Mara had come by with a kettle and tea cups. She set the kettle down on a cloth and the cup close to Chamomile. “Here you are, hon. One pot of lemon-ginger tea, and some poppyseed crackers.”
“Thanks, Mara,” Chamomile said, reaching out and snagging a cracker without even looking up from her book.
“Oh, and I brought some seeds and blueberries I had laying around for Ludwig. You all enjoy.”
Ludwig cawed and hopped over from where he was perched to peck at the treats that Mara had left for him. She petted his head gently, then pocketed the silver piece that Chamomile had already laid on the table as payment before retreating to deal with other customers.
When Ludwig had finished his snack, he turned to Chamomile and studied her for a second. “So, is the big city everything you thought it would be?”
Chamomile finished a sentence in her book, lowered it slowly, then pondered for a second. “It’s okay. Obviously this isn’t my dream town. Funnily enough, even though there’s a lot of activity here, I guess I always expected more to really happen here.”
“Well that’s what you get in a military town, I guess. ‘Buncha tight-laced soldiers stomping around the place doing busywork.”
At that moment, the tinkling sound of the entrance bell rang out across the cafe, and Chamomile idly looked up to see who it was. To her surprise, the person who entered the shop was quite unusual compared to the regulars. They appeared to be human, wearing white traveling robes, hood over their head, and a large travel pack on their back.
Ludwig spread his wings in excitement. “Cammy! That must be the weird traveler I’ve heard about!”
Chamomile watched as Mara walked over to the traveler, and they lowered their hood to speak with her. They had brown skin, a completely bald head, deep brown eyes, and a very bright smile that seemed their default expression. As they looked around the cafe, they caught Chamomile's gaze and gave her an extra-wide grin. Chamomile wasn't sure what she thought of this, as the people of the city were never nearly this forward. She lowered her gaze and tried to disappear.
The stranger finished chatting with Mara, and she returned to her post.
Don't come over here. Chamomile willed, anxious about the possibility of awkward social interaction. Despite this, the stranger made a beeline for her table and stopped in front of her. They clasped their hands together and gave a strange bow that Chamomile hadn't seen before.
"Um..." Chamomile said.
"Greetings, friend," the stranger spoke, cutting her off. "My name is Isra Hikmat. May I inquire as to your name and by which title you are called?"
"Uhh... Hi, Isra. I'm Chamomile Mesmera, b-but you can just call me Cammy. I don't... really have a title."
"Splendid!" Isra sat down across from Chamomile without asking. "Please excuse my boldness, but I am looking for help and you seemed exceedingly capable! Therefore I figured I must speak with you."
Ludwig cocked his head as he studied Isra. "I take back everything I said about you, Cammy. This one makes you look normal."
Ignoring the bird's snide comment, Chamomile pressed on. "What kind of help are you looking for? I'm only a fledgling witch, myself. Do you need a potion, perhaps?"
"Don't be so modest! You're the best witch in town!" Ludwig said.
"I'm the only witch in town."
Isra watched their exchange with wide-eyed fascination. "Incredible! You speak the language of birds! I knew there was something special about you."
"Oh, is that what it sounds like?" Chamomile gave a nervous chuckle. Her mother had long ago described to her that a master and her familiar communicate in a language all their own, but of course to her, her conversations with Ludwig sounded like plain Draydarran. Fortunately, it didn't seem to be perturbing Isra.
"Well," Isra said, continuing to smile at Chamomile, "On the way into your fine city, I was accosted by a cadre of gentlemen who purloined what little currency I had remaining, as well as a very valuable item."
"Not our city," Ludwig said.
"So it sounds like you got robbed and, what? You want my help to kill these bandits and get your stuff back?"
"Kill? Allfather forbid! No, I only wish to recover my item most valuable. The money was a paltry sum anyhow. But you are correct. I would wish to requisition your aid in recovering said object."
Chamomile was terrified by the idea, but somewhere deep down, she was also excited. "What makes you think I'm cut out for that?"
"Well, Master Kobún always said that if I needed help, I should seek out an adventurer, and that adventurers reside in the strangest inns and taverns. That's just the way of things, you see! And thus, here I am, at the strangest drinking establishment I could find, speaking to the strangest individual I could find therein. You must be an adventuerer!"
"W-well..." Chamomile took a second to take stock of her options. She had been actively looking for something to do that would bring her more excitement and, more importantly, cash. Opportunities like this didn't just fall into her lap every day. Still, an ounce of caution would be prudent. "Isra, I am considering your proposal, but first I'd like to know a little more about what's going on. First of all, who are you? Why should I trust you? And secondly, who were these thugs that attacked you? What weapons did they have, and did they say they were working for anyone?"
Isra beamed. "Yes, yes! Of course! An exchange of stories is necessary to build trust between new allies.
"I am a disciple of the monestary at Qi-Xiang. There I have studied religion, politics, language, and martial arts. However, my studies were put on hold when I received a special assignment from my master. He told me that my skills would be put to better use at practical tasks."
"Sounds like they just wanted to be rid of you." Ludwig said.
"Yes, birdie, I am very good at practical tasks. Much more so than at dusty bookwork! And this task was an important one. I was to transport the item I carried to a correspondant in the city of Iron Falls. Long have I travelled to arrive here, but on the precipice of the completion of my duty, I was ambushed! Men dressed in black cloaks surrounded me and committed robbery against me. My charge stolen from me, I have no choice but to requisition the help of a cunning and beautiful adventurer such as yourself, miss."
Chamomile blushed slightly. She was not used to compliments, especially about her appearance. Still, she was unsure of Isra. "I admit I cannot tell from your appearance, and I do not recognize your name. Isra, I'm sorry to ask this, but are you a man or a woman?"
"No." Isra shook their head.
Chamomile was taken aback. "'N-no'? I don't understand."
"If you must refer to me without using my name, I am most comfortable with the words 'they' and 'them'."
Chamomile still didn't completely understand, but decided that it wasn't any of her business.
"Fair enough. I'm sorry if I was out of line for asking."
"No, not at all. In the interest of fairness, would you prefer if I referred to you as 'she' and 'her'?"
"Yeah, that's fine. Oh, and this is Ludwig." Cammy said, gesturing to her familiar. "He goes by 'he', I suppose."
"Splendid! Now that we have our introductions out of the way, would you be so kind as to tell me your story, Miss Chamomile?"
Chamomile was nervous at first, but she slowly gained confidence as she gave a summary of her life up to this point. She told Isra about how she had grown up in the town of Accordia, longing for something more exciting than the doldrums of her sleepy town. How one day she entered the mansion on the outskirts of town and met the ghost of a girl long since deceased. How the two had grown to be closer than friends before being separated.
"Wow! What a riveting story of excitement and romance!" Isra remarked when Chamomile had finished.
"Yeah, well, it's still getting started, as far as I can tell. I'm hoping to be able to bring her back someday."
Isra touched Chamomile's hands over the table. "Listen to me, Miss Chamomile. If I know anything, it's that one day you will be reunited with your love. That's just the way things are! Or... will be."
Chamomile, while flattered, had about enough of this intense personal attention. "So... what now?"
Isra released Chamomile's hands and stood up. "Now... we adventure!"
Other patrons of the cafe glanced over their shoulders at this noisy individual.
"Okay, okay. I guess it can't hurt to go take a look. But... it's kind of late. Perhaps we should go in the morning? I'm off work tomorrow."
"A fantastic idea! That would be much safer. However, a problem. I have no money for lodging."
Chamomile sighed, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out five silver pieces. "Here. Go find an inn. You can pay me back once we get your stuff back."
Isra bowed deeply and accepted the coins. "Very well, I will meet you here at dawn on the morrow."
Chamomile had difficulty sleeping that night. Part of her was terrified of potential danger, while the other part was excited for what was to come. Eventually, she was able to drift off to sleep in the meager bed in her rented room. When she awoke, it was an hour before dawn. She hastily dressed, stuffing her many coat pockets with herbs, trinkets, and other spell components.
Lastly, she took the time to sit down with Ludwig to prepare her daily spells. She sat cross-legged on the floor of the room and Ludwig hopped up onto her foot. Communing with one's familiar was an important task for a witch. Using Ludwig as a conduit of sorts, she was able to communicate with her Patron, a sort of nebulous, quasi-sentient force that bestowed magic unto her. She did not fully understand this connection, but so far it had brought her power where she would otherwise have been helpless, and she was grateful for that. During the time of communion, she entered a trance-like state. Most of the time in this state, she would simply be free to meditate on the challenges to come that day, as well as decide which spells to prepare. Occasionally, she would receive cryptic messages or visions from her Patron. This time, she received a vision of Isra removing a mask from their face. It seemed her Patron wanted to communicate to her that there was more to Isra than they had revealed. After an hour had passed, her thoughts returned to the material realm and she was ready to go about the day.
She made haste towards the Black Spot, passing through the fancy Alm Street on her way. She always marveled at these high-class abodes, dreaming of one day being able to settle down in a house like that with Viola by her side. She shook her head, vowing not to get ahead of herself and get lost in daydreams.
Chamomile arrived at the Black Spot about half an hour after dawn to find Isra sitting cross-legged in meditation on the ground in front of the cafe. The door to the cafe opened, and a patron glanced down at Isra with a confused expression before carrying on their way.
"Hey, sorry I'm late. I had trouble getting to sleep last night."
"Be not worried, Cammy. I had faith you would arrive."
"You didn't think I'd ditch you?"
Isra turned their head to the side in thought. "It did not occur to me. I trust you."
"You should be careful trusting so easily. People might take advantage of that."
"After hearing your story, I knew that you were someone who could be trusted."
Chamomile shook her head. She wasn't sure if Isra was nave or what, but she would never place that much faith in someone she had just met.
"Anyway, Isra, let's go ahead and get going. How far is it to where you were ambushed?"
"Only about ten miles."
"T-ten miles?" Despite growing up in the countryside, Chamomile had never walked that far in her life.
"Is this a problem?"
"Shouldn't we like... take a horse or something?"
"With what money might we be able to rent a horse?"
Chamomile rolled her eyes. "Right, of course. You're flat broke, and I get paid peanuts. Okay, let's get this over with."
It was a long and grueling walk for Chamomile. She had to stop and rest a few times, nearly depleting her waterskin just on the way there. Fortunately, the land around Iron Falls was somewhat populous, especially near the Camella River, whose banks were fertile farmland for a ways away from the canyon through which it wound. Thus the two were able to fill up on water as they passed through various farming villages and trading post hamlets. Despite Chamomile's pitiable stamina, Isra seemed unflappable, never losing their breath and always plodding onward.
It was getting on towards midday when Isra suddenly stopped in their tracks. "We have arrived!"
The wind whistled across the nearby canyon and Chamomile leaned on her knees.
"My legs feel like they're on fire."
"Toughen up, chicky-poo!" Ludwig taunted. "You still gotta walk back, remember? Or did you somehow learn to teleport overnight?"
"Easy for you to say, chicken legs! You've been gliding around and riding on my shoulder this whole time."
Isra turned around and gave Chamomile a puzzled look. "I thought you performed splendidly, Cammy!"
Chamomile took a few deep breaths and slowly rose back upright. "I'm alright, I'm alright." Finally she had a chance to look around. It seems that they had stopped in the middle of the road in what amounted to the middle of nowhere. The wind blew and tall grasses rustled. The canyon down to the Camella River was about a hundred feet to their west, and everywhere else was tall prarie grass. The last town they had passed had been about an hour ago.
"So what makes you so sure this is the place?"
Isra walked off the path a short ways and pointed at the ground. "I remember this rock!"
Chamomile followed, and sure enough there was a triangular black stone on the ground. "Yep, that's a rock."
"I remember because I tripped over it running away from the unpleasant gentlemen."
"Right. Well I guess we can start looking for clues."
Chamomile was by no means an outdoorswoman, but she had a basic understanding of how footprints worked, namely the simple equation of foot + ground = prints.
"Ludwig, fly up and scout ahead, if you'd be so kind. See if there are any structures or camps around here or anything that looks suspicious or out of place." With a croak, Ludwig hopped from Chamomile's shoulder and took wing. After a few seconds, he was but a black speck in the sky above. In the meantime, Chamomile examined the ground around their feet, looking for any signs of a disturbance in the past day. After a minute of searching through the grass, something dark caught her eye. At first she thought it was a similar rock to the landmark that Isra had pointed out, but on closer inspection it seemed to be some sort of metal object the size of her palm sticking out of the ground. The object was simple enough to remove, and she excavated it and blew off residual soil.
The object seemed to be a mess of black metal rods that had all been twisted to intertwine with one another. In the center, there was a smooth circular iron sphere. On what she assumed was the back, a sort of mounting was welded into the shape, a loop of iron that might allow this trinket to attach to a chain or string and be worn around the neck.
Chamomile held the thing up to Isra. "Any idea what this is? Looks like some sort of charm or amulet."
Isra took the twisted metal from her and studied it over. "I am not sure, however as I recall, the men who ambushed me all had these strange symbols around their necks. Perhaps it has some sort of religious or occult significance?"
Chamomile knew little about religion, aside from what Aldir worship had osmosed into her over the years. The possibility of occult significance intrigued her, though. "Well it looks creepy, whatever it is. Let's hang on to it for now."
About that time, Ludwig glided down and landed on the black rock. "It's mostly clear around here, Cam, but I did see what looks like an old farmhouse about a quarter of a mile southeast of here, beyond a few hills." Chamomile relayed this information to Isra, and the two agreed to check it out, keeping low to the grass to hopefully hide their approach.
The building in question soon came into sight, and she stopped Isra. It indeed looked like an abandoned farmhouse, its wood exterior rotted and black, holes visible in its roof. Chamomile examined the building, but no signs of life could be seen. She was about to tell Isra to move closer when the two heard a muffled clang, the sound of a metal impact. They dropped to their hands and knees and examined the building once more through the grass. Emerging from the building could be seen a humanoid figure in black dress. They moved a ways out from the farmhouse and scoured the landscape, clearly looking for any signs of movement. Chamomile held her breath, not wanting to give away her position with even the slightest sound. Eventually the person turned around and moved back to the farmhouse, stopping against the doorframe and silently watching the field beyond.
Chamomile and Isra waited for a few minutes, but it didn't look like the person would go back inside.
"They must be keeping watch," Chamomile whispered to Isra.
Isra turned to her and gave her a thumbs-up, as if to say "I've got this."
Before she could stop them, Isra stood up from the grass and marched directly over to the person.
"Hello, sir!" Isra said. The person in the cloak jumped a bit, clearly having been unaware of their presence. "I was around here yesterday afternoon and, wouldn't you know it, I seemed to have dropped something important to me. I was wondering if you had seen it?"
The person put their hand to their belt, no doubt keeping their grip on a concealed blade. "No, go away," a dull man's voice said from beneath the hood.
Isra didn't break stride, slowly advancing on the man in a non-threatening manner. It then occurred to Chamomile that she hadn't seen any weapons on Isra's person. Her new acquaintance was about to walk unarmed into certain danger!
"Well maybe I dropped it here and it just hasn't been found yet. You wouldn't mind me taking a quick look inside, would you, kind sir?"
At this, the man drew a dagger from his belt and bradished it underhand at Isra. "You're not getting past me, infidel!"
"Now, now, there's no call for that! I'm only here to take a quick look around." Isra had drawn within arm's reach of the man, arms outstreched with palms up, as if to show they were unarmed.
"That's it, I warned you!" The man shouted.
Chamomile jumped to her feet, ready to hex the man before he could harm Isra, but before she could summon the power, the man was already stumbling backward. In the blink of an eye, Isra's open-palmed right hand had shot out and struck the man in his solar plexus. Gasping for air, he didn't have time to raise his arms to block Isra's next strike, a left hook to the temple. The man tipped and collapsed to the ground, falling still.
Chamomile dashed up to Isra. "Are you okay? What did you do to him?"
Without answering the question, Isra kneeled down beside the man, checked his pulse, and said a quick prayer under their breath.
"Is he... dead?"
Isra rose back to their feet. "Miss Cammy, when I took my oaths as an acolyte of Aldir, I vowed never to take a life. Aldir teaches us that there is always another way. Striking down a man robs him of the only life he has, and seals away any potential for that man to repent and do good in his life. No, this man is merely unconscious. He will awaken eventually, likely with a splitting headache."
Chamomile wasn't sure if she completely bought into that philosophy, but could at least feel good that they had avoided bloodshed.
"Now, Miss Cammy, before he wakes, let us explore this structure he wished so dearly to guard."
Chamomile took the opportunity to search the man's body while Isra looked around the ruined farmhouse. The man had little in his possession. A dagger, some paltry leather armor under his cloak, and another of those occult symbols she had found earlier. In his back pocket, he had a small coin purse containing roughly three gold pieces worth of coins of various mint and denomination. She pocketed them all. I'm already in the black, Chamomile thought. If nothing else, I could probably make a fair living as a thief. This is as much as I make in two weeks at work!
Her thought about theivery was mostly tongue-in-cheek, a joke she told herself to calm her racing heart.
Clang!The same metal sound as earlier startled Chamomile and set her heart racing again. She clutched at the dagger wrested from the unconscious man's grip before she heard the sound of a familiar voice.
"Found it!" Isra called from behind a wooden partition. Chamomile took a deep breath to calm herself and went to see what Isra had found. They stood beside a rotting bale of hay, gesturing downward to an open metal hatch in the floor. "I found a hole!"
The hatch had a built-in ladder that led down into darkness, the dim light of the barn barely revealing a stone floor ten feet below.
"Nope, not going in there!" Ludwig puffed himself out and croaked loudly. "Cam, you can get me to go into the occasional haunted house, but I will not go underground, especially into a creepy cult murder hole like that." He hopped off her shoulder and flew off.
The pair ventured down the ladder into the dark space below. Chamomile took a few seconds to cast a Dancing Lights spell, causing small orbs of light to appear around her. Now that the two of them could see better, she looked around the chamber. It was a small ten foot square chamber with an archway to the south that led into a long hallway. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all carved from smooth stone, as if someone had dug out this subterranean compound. Leading the lights around, Cammy and Isra slowly walked down the hallway. Bordering each side of the hallway seemed to be small rooms that contained simple prison beds and straw pillows. They seemed to be empty.
Isra stopped about halfway down the hallway. "Do you hear that?" Chamomile strained her hearing to listen, and eventually picked up on some sort of rhythmic sound that appeared to be coming from further in and below.
"What is it?" Cammy whispered back.
"Mmm, hard to say, but it sounds like chanting."
A shiver ran down Chamomile's spine. "I hope we're not disturbing anything."
At the end of the hallway, the room opened into a slightly larger chamber with a small altar at the back. On top of the altar was a candlestick bearing a lump of black wax that had melted down all over it. Dark stains were splattered around the altar and floors. Too dark to be blood. The rest of the room contained dusty columns and a vaulted ceiling. Aside from the distant chanting that was getting louder the further in she advanced, Chamomile couldn't hear any other sounds... except...?
With a sound like an angry cat, a dark shape lunged out towards Chamomile from the darkness. She let out an involuntary shriek and stumbled backwards into Isra, who was face to face with another creature. In the light, they appeared to be human, but their skin was blackened, not by pigment, but by some sort of corrosion that caused their orifices to ooze and droop. The one in front of Isra bore horrific scarring vertically and horizontally across its face. The creatures barely resembled humans anymore, and lurched with unnatural speed towards the two adventurers.
Chamomile scrambled to pick the best spell for this occasion, and was about to begin the incantation for Burning Hands when a pulse of warm, white energy washed over her. The two creatures stumbled backwards, repelled by this pulse.
"What was that?!" Cammy shouted.
"Just a bit of Aldir's protection! These undead bastards can't stand the stuff."
Chamomile had never seen an undead before, but she heard horror stories of shambling zombies and marauding skeletons. "I guess mind games won't be of much use here."
"Afraid not. We'll need to be a bit more direct with these abominations."
The creatures, whatever they were, had regained their footing and were starting to rear back up for an attack.
"Isra! Get into the hallway!" Chamomile ordered.
Complying instantly, Isra ducked a swipe from the creature before them and ran into the hallway, leaving Chamomile to fall into position in front of them. As the two zombie-like creatures approached, the one that had approached her earlier gave a sickening gurgle before expelling an inky projectile from its stinking gob. The wad of gunk shot towards the party with frightening speed. Chamomile tried to dodge, but the gunk clipped the side of her head and she stumbled back into Isra. She felt Isra's lithe arms grab her as an excruciating burning sensation spread across her face. She screamed again in pain, trying to wipe any residual ichor from herself. Her hearing in that ear turned to shrill ringing for a second before she felt that same warming energy flow into her from Isra's grip. As suddenly as it came, the pain stopped and Chamomile's hearing returned.
"If you're going to do something fantastic, please do it now!" Isra pointed to the creatures who were closing in rapidly.
"Thanks, Izzy, just watch this!" Chamomile snapped her hands up in front of her and began to chant. She could see the creatures closing in, one still dripping that viscous black bile from its mouth. As the other creature jumped towards her, its face split open along the scarring lines, revealing a nightmarish maw of uneven teeth like a particularly hellish rafflesia.
Resisting the urge to scream again, Chamomile finished her incantation and fire burst forth from her palms, licking over the two creatures.
"Fuck you!" She yelled, cursing the creatures as they were immolated by her flames.
In an instant, the fire disappeared, leaving a sickening smell of charred vomit in the air. Chamomile dropped to her knees, ignoring the bruising they surely took on the stone floor.
"Very good!" Isra cheered, seemingly unphased by their touch with near death. "That was dangerous, but you were very brave, Cammy." They held a hand out to Chamomile and pulled her to her feet. "Have you not been in a fight before?"
"N-not really." She stuttered. "I... killed a giant spider once."
"Well, first time for everything, I suppose. You really got those things!"
Chamomile surveyed her handiwork, looking down at the charred remains of the creatures who attacked her. The flower-faced zombie still twitched occasionally, but otherwise did not stir.
"W-what were they?"
"I know not. Some form of zombie, it seems. I have not heard of zombies with such grotesque abilities, however. I will need to record this." Isra pulled a small notepad out of their backpack and jotted down some notes with a quil.
Chamomile laughed, her nerves making her a little delirious. "Don't you have a thing against killing? We killed those assholes dead!"
Isra shook their head. "No, undead, as you might expect, are already dead. They do not have a life to take. In fact, destroying them is a sacred act that helps to restore dignity to their bodies from the ones who would animate them for vile purposes. I thank you for giving them at least a partial cremation."
Chamomile's heart began to calm again. "I guess I never thought of it that way. I think I'm okay now. Should we keep moving?"
Further into the underground complex, the chanting gradually grew louder. The pair passed various cells filled with empty manacles. The skittering of rats and spiders in the darkness set Chamomile on edge, and it was impossible to tell the direction of the droning voices through the echo. She had quickly picked up that there were carvings in the floor, meandering lines and circles that formed no recognizable pattern and only grew more erratic as the two explored. As scared as she was, Chamomile couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement and wonder. This was the kind of place she had always wanted to see, and here she was getting a first-hand look.
Isra's voice cut through the silence. "I could not help but notice before that you referred to me as 'Izzy'."
Chamomile jumped slightly. "Y-yeah. Is that okay? It kinda just slipped out."
"I have never before been given a nickname." Isra looked thoughtful, rubbing their bald head. "I suppose this is one of the benefits of cameraderie."
Chamomile gave a nervous laugh. "Well you're welcome, I guess. I've... never really had friends before. Other than Ludwig, of course. Viola was my first friend, and now she's... Well she's always with me, but... you know." She touched her fingers to the locket around her neck that carried the fingerbone of her ghostly beloved.
"I understand your loss, and you have my deepest sympathies." Isra nodded, then cocked their head at her. "Forgive me, though, but I do not understand the reason why you have not found more friends. I find you to be both intellectually fascinating and a kind and amicable person. Are these not valued qualities where you are from?"
Chamomile blushed. "Yeah... well... I'm a witch, ya know? Not often you find many good witches. Plus my village is full of Aldirans, so they tend to value fitting in with the community more than anything."
Isra's brow furrowed. "That is most unbecoming behavior of children of the Allfather. The Good Book teaches us to accept all members of our community and celebrate our differences. Ostracizing people based on conformity is a dangerous mindset indeed. I would advise them to seek guidance on the word of the Allfather."
"I appreciate the sentiment, but it is what it is, I suppose. What about you? What's life like in Qi-Xiang?"
Isra beamed their signature smile once more. "Very boring! My life up until this point was spent either in reading, martial arts training, or in meditation. We are taught the Tianshi approach to worshipping Aldir, though we refer to him as Fùqin, meaning Father. Our approach teaches us that in order to truly love the world and her peoples, we must give up attachments to material posessions and goals, because they only bring us suffering."
"That sounds pretty rough. I like my things."
Isra laughed. "I thoroughly understand. It is not a way of life that best suits all, but there is wisdom in it to be sure. I spent most of my days meditating on this philosophy, as well as studying the ways of the world. To be completely honest, I was never particularly skillful at the studying part, much to the dissapointment of my master. It was he who trusted me with my mission, to deliver an item of utmost importance to a contact in Iron Falls."
"Yeah, I remember you saying that. Do you know what the item was?"
"I do not. I was simply given a small wooden box and told never to open it, and as such I complied."
"So... we could be risking our lives in here for basically nothing?"
Isra shook their head. "I do not believe that to be the case. The council was clear that this was to be a covert matter of the highest urgency. The monks of Qi-Xiang may have their mysteries, but they never lie."
Chamomile found that hard to believe, but did not press the issue further. "I suppose we'll see, either way."
The passageway abruptly ended, an iron door with a small grate blocking the path through. Isra put up their hand, signaling a quiet stop.
"Let us proceed with caution," they whispered. The door swung open with a soft creak at Isra's hand, revealing the room beyond. It was a completely empty circular room, save for a brazier in the center bearing a pile of unlit wood. As the two stepped over the threshold, a bright purple flame erupted from the basin, quickly filling up the room with thick colored smoke.
"Don't breathe it in! Get through!" Isra quickly covered their mouth with their hood and dashed towards the opposite door. Chamomile tried not to breathe in the haze, but it was already too late. Her legs began to wobble and her vision swam. Darkness consumed her.
As her mind was lost in haze, Chamomile saw visions of Viola. She saw herself returning to the ruins of the Accordia manor, performing some sort of incantation, and a body arising from the rubble around a single bone. Viola stood before her and smiled. The vision sped up, showing the two a few years later, appearing happy, but something wasn't right. Viola bore dark spots on her skin and woke up coughing in the night. After a while of this, the disease spread further, and Chamomile saw a vision of her holding Viola's hands as a mass of tentacles appeared from the void, grabbing Viola and pulling her away. As Chamomile looked up to the sky, she saw the body of her beloved contorted and crushed by the grip of the tendrils, behind which the sky was blackened, replaced by an impossibly large sea of tentacles, eyeballs, and mouths, all the while a shrill screech like nails on a chalkboard mixed with the cries of the damned filled her ears. As the vision faded, she heard the disembodied voice of Viola calling her name.
The voice of Viola in her head was quickly replaced by a voice she had more recently come to know.
"...ammy... Cammy... Cammy, wake up!"
Chamomile felt herself jostled awake, and was jolted to attention in Isra's grasp. She was laying on the floor in a hallway outside the smoke room. "H-how long was I out?"
"Only about thirty seconds. I'm glad I was able to wake you. I had feared that smoke was toxic and you would have been in peril. Fortunately you were merely rendered unconscious and I was able to carry you to safety. Are you feeling okay?"
"Y-yeah, I'm fine." Chamomile stood up shakily and dusted herself off. It was only a chemically-induced nightmare. Or was it? She realized there may have been some wisdom in that nightmare, beneath all the horror. If she could not guarantee a safe world for Viola, what was the point of bringing her back to life?
"Anyway, we should continue pressing onward. I think we're getting to the center of the complex."
Another few mintues of travel caused the everpresent chanting to reach peak volume and clarity, and a set of dark marble stairs led down into what appeared to be a chapel. Chamomile extinguished her dancing lights, and she and Isra peeked in carefully, seeing people in black robes lined up from back to front all prostrate and chanting. Chamomile could not recognize the language, but didn't need to to know that it was likely no good. In the far back of the room, a flickering white light cast a silhouette of a person with arms held outstretched above their head, holding some spherical object.
"Well that looks significant," Chamomile whispered to Isra. "Is that your object?"
She expected them to respond, but instead Isra just stared wide-eyed at the orb in the figure's hands. They were mouthing something to themself that was lost in the din of voices.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'."
All of a sudden, the chanting stopped. The figure in the back of the room lowered their hands and turned to address the congregation. Their features were still a blur due to the bright light behind them. A voice rang out.
"Brothers and sisters! How fortuitous are we that in our hour of need, the very thing we need would be delivered to our doorstep! Behold, an Altirisian Opal!" The voice was perfectly androgynous, with reverent tone.
The crowd erupted into orgasmic shrieks and wails. Chamomile had no idea what that meant, but it seemed Isra did. "Just say the word, Izzy, and we can-"
Before she could even finish her sentence, Isra had already charged into the room.
"Halt! That item is the rightful property of the Order of Qi-Xiang! Return it this instant!"
The wails stopped, the crowd turning to look at Isra.
"Look, my brothers and sisters. It seems a mouse has crawled its way into our lair!" The crowd began to giggle, unhinged. "And what do we do to little plump mousies?"
In unison, the crowd chanted "Eat them! Eat them!"
The priest then drew a curved sword from under their robes and brandished it towards Isra. The crowd also rose to their feet, pulling twisted daggers from their cloaks. Isra was surrounded, but they assumed a fighting stance anyway.
Chamomile's pulse began to beat through her ears as she racked her brain to think of a spell she had that could help Isra. The panic froze her to the spot, but in the rush of adrenaline, she heard the faintest hint of a voice in her head.
"The feeble minded fools... so easily deceived. Boggle their minds and overcome their strength of numbers."
Almost as if by instinct, Chamomile pulled a scrap of parchment from a cloak pocket, rolled it into a cone, whispered a command word, then shouted into the rolled parchment.
"Hey assholes! Over here!"
To her astonishment, Chamomile heard her own voice come from not between her lips but from the far corner of the room. The congregation turned in unison to follow the noise, and Isra needed no second bidding. With a quick kick, they swept the legs out form beneath the priest's body, deftly catching the orb before it hit the floor and tucking it into a pocket with one fluid motion.
"Good work, Cammy! Now let's bolt!"
With a left and right punch combo, Isra struck two of the congregation, causing them to fall unconscious and stagger back into their compatriots. This created an opening, and Isra vaulted off the body of one of the acolytes that was leaning up against the crowd and leapt over the remaining assailants. They hit the floor on the other side running and grabbed Chamomile's wrist.
"Go go go!"
The two easily outstripped the raucous mob, running at top speed back the way they came. It was a heart-pounding few minutes trying to retrace the path back to the entrance. Fortunately, the purple smoke trap seemed to be spent, and the room stayed quiet as they made their way through.
Finally, Chamomile saw the glimmer of daylight above in the distance. Just when she was starting to feel relieved, a panel in the wall slid open and the priest from the chapel ran out, brandishing their blade at the party, completely blocking their path.
"How'd they beat us here?" Chamomile asked, thinking out loud.
"Oh you pathetic little mice. You think you know this place better than me? I know all the passageways and secret shortcuts. Sorry to say, but I cannot let you leave here with the Opal." With this, the priest charged forward, swinging their sword towards Isra with reckless abandon. Isra was ready, however, and sidestepped the swing. With this opening, Chamomile stepped back and willed forth the power of her hexes. As the priest looked up, Chamomile could see a white skull mask covering their face. They locked eyes briefly, and in that instant Chamomile let loose her power, inflicting the priest with the power of her Evil Eye. The priest looked away, but she could see the worried look in their eye. The magic had taken effect. Chamomile then began her Cackle, a rich, crazed-sounding laugh that served to prolong the unease the priest felt.
Still, the priest regained composure, but only immediately before Isra shoulder-slammed them in the back. Chamomile could hear the gasp as the wind escaped their lungs, but still they stood. "Heh..... I'm afraid you'll have to do more than that to escape Azagog's judgment."
With their offhand, the priest pulled a twisted black effigy from their neck, the same one Chamomile had seen on the road. As the priest stagged upright, they clasped the idol in their hands and chanted. A cold sick feeling swept over Chamomile, and with a glance at Isra could see that they were feeling it as well as they blanched, looking ill. It was almost as if the life was leaving her body and her limbs were going numb. This was the cruel, sick opposite of the warmth that she had felt Isra channel.
The priest stepped back and cracked their neck, looking just as limber as before. "You see, as long as I have Unity on my side, I am unstoppable!"
Chamomile was unsure of what to do, but maintained focus. First she maintained her cackle, rising it in volume until it became a shriek, then, with a quick breath, gestured with her hands and pointed at the priest. She let loose as harsh of a scream as she possibly could, and she saw a trickle of blood flow down the sides of the priest's mask, their eardrums torn by her Ear-Piercing Scream spell.
"I hope you think about what you've done!" Isra cried, stepping up to the priest and pummeling them with a quick one-two punch combo, one on each ear. With a gurgle, the priest collapsed to the ground, clutching their head as they fell unconscious.
"Let's go, before the rest catch up!" Isra said, glancing nervously at the open hatch on the ceiling.
"Not yet! Let me at least search this guy's body while he's out!"
Quickly rummaging through the priest's pockets, Chamomile was able to find about 132 gold pieces worth of coins and valuables, as well as a letter written in a language she didn't understand. "Ok, now let's go!"
The two climbed back up the ladder and out into the sunlight. The man that Isra knocked out earlier was nowhere to be seen, either having entered the tunnels after them or run away. Isra pushed the heavy metal hatch closed and began kicking at the walls of the farm building.
"What are you doing?"
"Well, with any luck..." Isra was interrupted by the sound of creaking wood. "You might wish to stand back." The two evacuated the dilapidated farm house in time to hear the rotted wood splinter and come crashing down. "They're not going to be able to leave there easily any time soon."
Chamomile leaned on her knees to catch her breath. She was almost knocked off her feet when Ludwig swooped in for a full-speed landing on her shoulder.
"Cam! You're alive! I thought for sure you'd be dead in there!"
"Thanks... for the... vote of confidence... Luddy."
Isra bowed to Ludwig. "Hello once more, bird friend!"
"Now, I could get used to this kind of treatment. So did you find what you were looking for in there?"
Chamomile nodded, still catching her breath. She pulled the pouch of valuables from the priest from her pocket and held it out. "There's over 100 gold in there. Enough for me to quit that horrible job."
Ludwig flapped his wings excitedly and croaked to the sky. "Finally! I was so sick of that. Suck it, capitalism!"
"Of course, it's only fair that we split the coin with Isra."
Ludwig's celebrations immediately stopped. "Now hold on just a minute. You were hired to come on this little pleasure hike. Surely you should be getting the majority cut?"
Isra laughed a deep, throaty laugh. "You two never cease to entertain! I could watch your antics all day, though I know not your words."
Despite the lighthearted banter, Chamomile still had a lot on her mind. The vision she had in the smoke still troubled her, and if these strange cultists were anything more than a remote sect, there was something really troubling going on in Draydar. Furthermore, she put herself in real danger going in there. Isra was certainly capable, but things could have easily gone poorly. She must have appeared lost in thought, because Isra clapped her on the shoulder to bring her back to her senses.
"Fret not, my friend! There is no need to be so forlorn. You and I make a great team! We successfully recovered something of immesurable value! Now I must attend to delivering it. I only hope that my contact is still in town. What say we continue traveling together for now?"
Chamomile and Isra slowly marched back to Iron Falls. She had a lot to think about during her walk. She asked Isra about some of the words she had heard in that underground temple, such as "Azagog" and "Altirisian Opal". Isra seemed not to know, but Chamomile was unsure if this ignorance was sincere or if they were withholding something from her.
It was early evening by the time they returned, and Chamomile was famished. Despite her propositions of food, Isra was intent in delivering their package before anything else. They led her to a house on Alm Street. As they approached the front door of the luxurious townhome, Chamomile stopped them.
"Um, Isra, I hate to break it to you, but nobody lives in this house."
"Hm, what is it that you mean, Cammy?"
"This house has been vacant for a really long time. I heard it got repossessed by the city a long time ago and they couldn't find anyone to buy it. Something about it being haunted. Not that I'm afraid of haunted houses anymore, but... I just don't want you to be disappointed."
Isra shook their head. "Never thee worry, Cammy. I know this is where my contact was scheduled to meet me." They grasped the handle of the door and turned. It opened without resistance and revealed a dark foyer beyond. "You see, Miss Cammy, there's absolutely nothing to wor-"
Isra froze. Chamomile had to crane her neck to see over their broad shoulders. "What? What's wro- ...oh."
At the base of the main staircase was a man covered in bruises and minor cuts. Dried blood was smeared across his face and clothes, and a grotesque stab wound flayed his gut open to the air. However, the strangest thing was that out of all the bloodstains on the corpse, none of them were red. They were all black.
Isra gulped. "Well, Miss Cammy. I'm afraid our mission is far from over."
A creak of wood rang out from the top of the staircase. Isra and Chamomile snapped up to look. There at the top of the stairs was a cloaked figure, their face shrouded in a hood. The first thing Chamomile noticed was a pair of red horns cresting out from under the hood, a matching red tail, and a dagger held underhand.
The stranger looked down at the two in the door and glanced around before sheathing the dagger. A man's voice came from beneath the hood.