Mira and Echo looked up at the sign for Narsis’ Apothecary. It was much the same as the other buildings in Cawold: a wattle and daub structure with a thatched roof. Only the windows sat so low that the window boxes— which were filled with strange, toxic looking flowers —lined up with Echo’s shins.
The duchess turned to Mira with a curious look on her face. The brightly plumed zephyra was the furthest thing from tall, but with the tops of the windows aligning with her shoulders she practically looked like a winged go’thial demigiant.
No sound came from the shop as they approached the stable style door. The knight’s training guided her hand to check her armor straps before curling around the hilt of her sword.
“Looks deserted,” Echo muttered.
“I don’t like this, my lady,” Mira replied. “The apothecaries back in Sitri are always packed this time of day.”
“Perhaps our would-be employer is in more need of help than we could have guessed.”
Mira’s jaw flexed as Echo raised her fist and rapped on the door. There was stillness for a moment before Echo tried again. In the next instant both women jumped.
“Go away!” came a cranky old voice. “We are closed! No stock! Can’t you read!?”
The zephyrni women turned to each other with the most quizzical looks on their faces. There was nothing posted, not even a closed sign in the shop window, but as they stepped back, Echo issued an annoyed sigh. The duchess gestured to the lower door, and the message pinned at the height of her knee:
Closed – No Stock
“No stock?” Mira’s face screwed up. “But how?”
“I’d like to know that myself.” Once again Echo knocked at the door, a little more forcefully than before. “Mr. Nar—.”
“Confound it, you ignorant yokels! How much clearer do I have to make this!?”
There was a great deal of shuffling before the upper door flew open. Both their wings flared in surprise as the wrinkled little man’s face erupted into view. Red faced with a bulbous nose too big for his face, his hair was the gray-white of burned paper. Milky blue eyes stared daggers at them as he stabbed a spindly finger at them.
“Out of stock,” he continued fuming, “means we’ve nothing to sell! No amount of knocking will change that. So unless you’re here to handle my problem, you can be a good couple of lasses and bugger off!”
Before either could speak he slammed the door.
Incoherent sounds bubbled from Mira’s lips as she raised a finger. Echo could merely cock her head, brow pinched tight in confusion.
“Rude little thing, isn’t he?” Echo eventually managed to blurt.
“C-Come, my lady,” was all Mira could think to reply. “Obviously he doesn’t want help nearly as much as he claims.” She thumbed her nose at the door and stuck her tongue out.
Wrapping a wing around Echo, Mira guided her away, but they barely managed two steps before a staggering human knocked into them.
He was tall and heavy set with sallow, sweaty skin. His dark hair was plastered to his face and neck. The stench of alcohol clinging to him crossed Mira’s eyes. Echo lurched, hand flying to her lips as her whole form convulsed, threatening to disgorge her lunch.
“Hey!” Mira protested at his rudeness.
Paying neither woman any attention, he beat on Narsis’ door, wincing against the hangover headache clearly gripping him.
“Nar!” he bellowed. “It’s Norm! Open up!”
There was hardly space for a breath before Narsis threw open both doors. “Norm!” the gnome called warmly. “How are you, my old friend? How’s the wife and daughter?”
“Making my life a living Hell,” Norm grunted.
“Women.” Narsis chuckled. “Looks like the hair of the dog didn’t cut it, eh?” Norm shook his head and wobbled. “Come on then.” Narsis stepped aside, motioning him inside. “I might have one dose of eye opener left.” The gnome glanced to the zephyrni. “Friends of yours?”
Norm squinted hard at them. “Never seen ‘em before.”
“We’re here about your posting!” Echo blurted before Narsis could be cranky again.
“Oh,” the gnome straightened up. “Is that why you were beating at my door? Well, why didn’t you say so!?” He snickered as he motioned them to follow. “Come in. Come in.”
Despite the low hung windows, the shop’s interior was built to more human size, although there were dozens of conveniently spaced stools for its proprietor to climb on. Curious scents both perfumed and maligned the air. It was as if the sweet aromatics were in competition for dominance with cloying stenches. All were mere ghosts, however, phantoms of when the shop was full of products and customers, but now the apothecary was devoid of both. Only dust collected in trays that had once advertised tinctures, potions, balms, and raw ingredients.
Muttering and cursing came from beneath the till counter. A great deal of glasses tinked off each other as Narsis fished for something.
“So you’re interested in taking care of my problem for me?” he called to the women. “The pay is ten gold each. Think you can handle it?”
“No clue,” Mira admitted.
“It would help to know what your problem is, master alchemist,” Echo added.
Narsis popped up from behind the counter. “Did I forget to put that?” They nodded. He groaned with frustration. “Bakagor’s wrinkles,” he cursed to himself. “Sometimes I swear I’d forget my glasses if they weren’t on my…” He reached up and touched the empty space on his nose.
Huffing, he retrieved a vial with an eyedropper and beckoned Norm over. “Wolves,” he continued as he applied drops to the human’s eyes. “The forest that I collect most of my ingredients in has been claimed by a pack of steppe wolves. I need them dealt with before I go bankrupt. Kill them. Drive them off. It doesn’t matter to me. Think you can handle it?”
Mira found Echo’s expectant eyes on her. The knight stroked her chin, lips screwing this way and that in contemplation.
“How many?” said Mira.
He shrugged. “Nine. Maybe ten. No more than a dozen.”
She drummed her fingers on her thigh. The clink of her gauntlets on her armor echoed through the shop. There was risk in adventuring, that there was no denying, but wolves were hardly as dangerous as goblins, ogres, or any of the other man-eating, warlike races.
A heavy sigh welled in her throat. It wasn’t like he was asking them to slay a dragon. Besides, Echo’s begging eyes couldn’t be denied.
“Alright,” Mira relented. “Ten gold each and we get to keep whatever we kill.”
Echo’s brow knitted. “Dame knight?”
“We can sell the pelts, my lady,” she answered. “Good quality wolf fur fetches a decent price at market.”
That infectious smile spread across the whole of Echo’s face. “Brilliant! I’d not thought of that.”
“Ten gold and a chance to get eaten by wolves?” said Norm as he blinked out the last of his hangover. “I’m in.”
“Um, I’m sorry, Master Norm,” Echo began, the confusion plain on her face, “but I don’t recall inviting—.”
“You know where you’re going?” Norm interjected.
“Well, no, but—.”
“Then it’s settled.” He waved her off. “You can keep the pelts. I’m just in it for the gold.”
“That,” a knowing smirk crossed Narsis’s face, “and I think our human friend here noticed that that was the last of my miracle hangover cure.”
Norm shrugged. “Yeah, that too. Not to mention, do you have any idea how many drinks that much gold can buy?”
“From the looks of you, I’d wager a week,” Echo snipped.
The man laughed. “Maybe if I pace myself!”
“Wonderful!” Naris cheered. “You’ll leave at once? The forest is but a couple hours on foot.” He laughed a hooping laugh. “Less with those long legs of yours.”
Mira looked to Echo. “Whenever you’re ready, my lady.”
The duchess shrugged. “No time like the present, I suspect.”
Grunting, Norm rose to his feet. “Hold on.” With a heavy sigh, he retrieved a gold wedding band from his pocket and raised it to his lips. “Do we need anything from the market,” his jaw flexed, “dear?”
A woman’s ghostly, disembodied voice came from nowhere. “Pick up bread, darling.”
He slipped the ring on and there was an audible rush of energy. His eyes flashed, irises going from brown to red wrung in yellow. He blinked and they returned to normal. The stink of booze was gone, though it may have been preferred to the foul odor of brimstone clinging to him.
“Okay,” he said. “Ready whenever you are.”
Echo’s mouth opened and closed as she looked from him to Mira and back. “Are we not going to talk about whatever that was?”
“No,” Norm replied simply. “Come on. Let’s go.”
The zephyra stepped behind her knight who was just as lost as her.
They followed the strange human out of Cawold at a distance. He seemed ordinary enough, now at least, but neither knight nor noble was keen to be too close.
He’d set a brisk pace. Nothing too bad for the zephyrni to flutter after, though Mira did find herself in need of walking from time-to-time. The forest Narsis spoke of stood out easily in the Weremarch grasslands. Granted it was anything but a “forest.” The stand of oaks barely counted as woods, but it was decidedly dense enough to house a pack of wolves.
Like Narsis had surmised, it didn’t take them long to get there. They’d traveled for maybe an hour before it came into view. In less than a half hour they’d arrive, but just as each step drew them nearer, a figure closed from the opposite direction: a mule cart driven by a figure in a gray hood.
Mira’s muscles tensed. Her hand drifted towards her sword as they stepped off the road as their paths crossed. The driver pulled back on the reins to stop his team. The knight’s fingers wrapped around the hilt. He drew back his hood, opening his cloak as he did, and she breathed a sigh of relief. A pious wooden sun wheel, the symbol of the Church of Korik— a peaceful god associated with the sun and healing —sat on the driver’s chest.
He was a rather unimpressive figure. Not particularly tall and with little mass to speak of. It was clear by his tonsured brunet hair that he was a man of the cloth.
“Greetings, fellow travelers,” the friar began warmly. “I am Brother Luke, servant of his holiness, Lord Korik. How fare you this day?”
“We’re good!” Mira chirped. “You?”
“The sun is warm and the sky is clear.” He beamed. “What more could we ask for?”
“Pardon me, brother, but might I inquire, what brings you here?” said Echo.
“I am but a wandering monk,” he answered simply. “I go where his holiness guides. Right now, I have felt a tug to the south. Pray tell, is there a settlement much further?”
“Follow the road and you’ll reach Cawold in about an hour,” said Norm.
“Wonderful! I feared another night of camping might’ve been in order. What brings you so far from town, friends?”
“The alchemist hired us,” Mira answered, jerking her head in the direction of Cawold. “He’s been having trouble collecting ingredients lately.” Her wings rose and fell with her shrugging shoulders. “A pack of wolves took over those woods there.”
“Wolves?” Brother Luke glanced over his shoulder. “His holiness provides again.”
Mira cocked her head, feathers rustling.
“My order vows to absolute pacifism. (“And poverty,” Mira heard Echo mutter). We are forbidden from causing harm to anything. If they’d attacked it would have been the end of me, and even though I would gladly go to meet my lord, if it is his will, I feel I still have much to do in this world.”
“Well then, you should probably get moving,” said Norm. “There’s no telling what they’ll do once we get in there.”
“Indeed, friend,” Brother Luke said thoughtfully. “I will hurry along and pray for your safe return.”
“Really?” Mira’s eyes glittered. “Thank you so much!”
Brother Luke raised a hand, his fingers pointed in benediction. Making the mark of his church over them, Mira felt warmth course through her body. The soreness from the long ride in the ox cart and growing ache from walking and fluttering so long fled her.
Unlocking the brake, Brother Luke clicked his tongue. “Onward Wesley, Padro.”
The mules huffed but obliged, plodding once more down the road.
Feathers fluffing, Mira turned to the others. “What a nice guy.”
A heavy sigh called from Echo. The little duchess stared at the woods from beneath her brow. Her wings tucked tight to her back as her glower intensified.
“What’s wrong with tiny?” said Norm.
Following her gaze, Mira matched the duchess’ sigh with one of her own. “Young woods: low canopy, tight tree pack.”
“Aaaand…?” said Norm.
“It means we can’t fly, you drunkard.” Echo’s eyes snapped to him. “Ninety percent of zephyra combat strategy is aerial mobility.” She turned her attention to her knight. “I don’t suppose you’ve any razor feathers?”
Mira shook her head. “I’ve been in Sitri since I was five. Human city. Can’t even get some bad cloud muffins let alone razor feathers or wing blades.”
“Lovely,” Echo said flatly.
“Giving up?” said Norm.
“No,” Echo huffed.
The scrape of steel rang out as Mira drew her sword. Taking her position in front of the duchess, she took a deep breath to steady herself.
“Whenever you’re ready, my lady.”
A playful smirk perked the corner of Norm’s lip. “Ladies first,” he said, beckoning them forward.
“Oh no, I insist,” Echo replied, matching his smirk with her own. “Age before beauty.”
With a roll of the eyes, Mira stepped through the underbrush. Dappled light pierced the canopy ahead. All was calm within the woods. A breeze rustled the leaves carrying on it a particular stench. The scent of wolves.
The other two fell in behind her. Beyond the rustling wind, the only sound was their footfalls. Every now and then, a twig would snap and Mira felt a tug at her belt where Echo snagged her. All the while, that awful canine stink grew stronger. A silk handkerchief was forced into Mira’s hand so that she, like Echo, could shield her nostrils with it.
“Aagh!” Norm cried out.
Wheeling, Mira’s eyes went wide. For all their care to keep quiet, they were bested. Two wolves had caught them unaware. One with its teeth already sunk deep into Norm’s leg.
She whipped around Echo, sword screaming through the air. The wolf released but too late. The tip of her blade tore through its shoulder.
Rage filled Norm’s face. Thrusting his palm towards the other one, horrible, inhuman words hissed from him. An intensely green flash lit up the woods. A beam of hellish energy erupted from the human, striking the wolf in the muzzle. The acrid stench of burning fur filled the air as its lifeless body was hurled away.
To Mira’s shock, the bite wound to Norm’s calf closed before her eyes, but her moment’s distraction was an opportunity presented to the other wolf. It lunged, fangs snapping shut around her gauntleted sword arm. She clenched her jaw as its weight wrenched her arm, threatening to part shoulder from socket.
Wincing, Mira reared back to punch with her off hand. She heard Echo say something in a language like she’d never heard before. Hissing heat whipped past her cheek, singeing her hair. A bolt of flame erupted on the wolf’s chest. With a yelp, it released.
Mira turned an appreciative look towards Echo only for her body to move before her mind. She shoved the duchess away as she thrust past her. The point of her blade impaled the third, unseen wolf that had lunged for the back of Echo’s neck.
They’d only seen the first two to that point. The other pair had advanced while they were distracted saving Norm. Their attention split, they’d gone for the smallest member of their party. Smart dogs.
The fourth leapt for Mira’s throat. In one motion, she kicked the dead canine off her sword and swung. It didn’t get the chance to shriek in pain as her blade passed through its neck.
“Nice moves,” Echo muttered in astonishment.
A proud smirk spread across Mira’s lips. “I am a finely tuned instrument of destruction.” She turned on her heel and hurried to help Norm, “Yaagh!” only to step on a blood slicked patch of moss and have her feet go out from under her.
She landed with an unceremonious thud. It was hard to say what was more rattled, her pride or her teeth. With a shake of her head and warmth rapidly spreading through her cheeks, she scampered off the ground.
“Where’d the other one go?” she asked in a bid to deflect from her embarrassment.
“Lost track of it,” said Norm.
“Look!” Echo gestured wildly to the ground next to Norm. “It’s left a blood trail.”
“C’mon.” Norm jerked his head. “It should lead us to the rest of the pack.”
Continue to Chapter Three on October 21, 2023.
About the Author
A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.