It was raining when Amelia arrived in Aldcroft, although in her mind, even the rain couldn’t make the town more depressing. The townspeople would tell you that it was a thriving hub of the shipping industry, but while cargo ships did indeed dock there, the village itself was a sty, a few hovels centered around an open-air market and dock area, with a handful of campsites thrown in for good measure. A dozen or so decent houses were scattered here and there, but they only served to make the rest of the town seem more desolate. It rested at the southeastern edge of the Glenumbra Moors, and with Iliac Bay directly to the east, there wasn’t a lot of dry land, only a series of small islands connected to each other by footbridges. One road led out of town and met up with a major thoroughfare that connected it to Daggerfall and Camlorn. The humidity was oppressive year round, not to mention the stench of rot and fish. She had been used to it growing up, but it was amazing how being away for a few years could make a person forget. Either that, or it had gotten worse over time.
She stopped at the top of the bridge on the way into town, looking from house to house and hovel to hovel, dreading actually going in. She was tempted to turn and leave them to their fate, but her conscience just wouldn’t allow it. Besides, if what she heard was true, the people of Camlorn might be in danger as well. Thus, with a deep breath and a slight tremble in her hands, she went on across the bridge. The first thing she noticed, even from the edge of town, was that Aldcroft had tripled in size since she had been there. Most of the new people were set up on the docks, near the bridges, or in a military encampment near the big gates onto the moors. She stopped to ask one of the people camping near the bridge what was going on.
“Refugees,” the man said, “from Camlorn.”
“Then it’s true?”
He nodded. “You heard about the werewolves, then?”
“I did. Thank you, friend.” She turned and went farther into town, heading toward Chamberlain Weller’s house.
She found him standing on the front porch with a couple of townspeople. “Red!” said the chamberlain. “I must confess I didn’t expect to ever see you again.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” she said coldly.
He had the good grace to look embarrassed. “It is good to see you, I assure you.”
“Whatever. I was sent by the Beldama Wyrd. Apparently a hunter named Gloria Fausta was asking for help, and I was told to come see you.”
Weller shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name. Duke Sebastien of Camlorn was kidnapped; perhaps she was taken along with him. I wouldn’t put it past those damn Bloodthorns.”
“The Bloodthorns are behind this?”
“Oh, yes. And you came to help? Are you saying you want to help Aldcroft, Red?”
“I’m here to help the duke and see what can be done about the werewolves. And I don’t work for free. Now, tell me what happened.”
“These bumbling town guards allowed him to get abducted, that’s what happened!”
“Bumbling?” she echoed with amusement.
“At least the Lion Guard has arrived to pick up the slack from the town guards, but I’m sure they could use help. I know you can handle yourself.”
Amelia sighed. “What do you need me to do?”
“Speak to Lieutenant Harim. He’s at the lighthouse.”
“The lighthouse? Really?”
Chamberlain Weller shrugged apologetically. “He was scouting out there, I’m sorry.”
“Well, tell me about this duke.”
“He loves his people and they love him. I don’t know what else there is to tell. He was driven out of Camlorn by Falchou and his werewolves, along with the rest of the population.”
“Any idea what the Bloodthorns are planning?”
“I could guess. Most of our force is besieging Camlorn, so Aldcroft is vulnerable. There’s no leadership with the duke out of commission, so the Bloodthorns can take Aldcroft and then hit the Camlorn forces from the rear.”
“Isn’t that kind of . . . backhanded?”
“Who can understand their reasoning?”
“You said there’s no leadership here. What about you and my father?”
“I’m no good with military strategy, and your father is at Camlorn.”
“He left his own men to go where he thought the best action would be. I take it that’s why you said the town guards were bumbling?”
“Not so much bumbling as disorganized.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. She hated this city more with every word out of Weller’s mouth. “I suppose it never occurred to one of his lieutenants to step up and take over, did it? Or did he take all of his officers with him and leave the young grunts to pick up the slack? All right, fine. I’ll find Lieutenant Harim out by the lighthouse.”
The lighthouse was set apart from Aldcroft proper and stood a short distance down the shore along with a few houses. This was the upper-class part of town, the beachfront homes of Aldcroft’s rich and famous, including her father, who was captain of the guard and second in rank only to Chamberlain Weller. Amelia had grown up with the rays of the lighthouse and the sound of waves crashing on the shore coming in her bedroom window. It should have been a magical place to grow up. Funny how life can take the beauty out of things. Then again, it wasn’t really life at all, just one man.
She made her way up the path and over several footbridges until she passed the place she had once called home, a two-story stone house with a vegetable garden in the yard. It was dark now, what with her father being gone and all, and she was just as glad for it. She wouldn’t have to deal with the bastard.
A Redguard in a Lion Guard uniform knelt at the end of a footbridge between her father’s house and the lighthouse. He was crouched in the brush, silently watching the activity across the bridge.
“Are you Lieutenant Harim?” she asked, crouching next to him.
“Watch yourself,” he whispered. “This place is thick with Bloodthorn cultists.”
“I’m here to help rescue the Duke. Chamberlain Weller sent me.”
He looked her over dubiously. “I need a seasoned warrior.”
“I’m older than I look, and I know what I’m doing.”
“Very well. The duke is in the lighthouse, but we’ll have to wait for reinforcements before going in.”
“How many are there?”
“Cultists? From what I’ve seen, I’d say four between us and him.”
Amelia nodded. “Not a problem. I’ll get the duke. You just make sure none of the cultists slips away.”
“You’re a bold one. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
She rose up a bit and looked the connecting island over. One cultist stood at the end of the bridge and one was at the door to the lighthouse. Another sat next to the lighthouse drinking from a tankard. He would die first. She stepped off the land and into the knee-deep water, wading slowly and quietly across to the opposite shore, where she drew one sword and slipped up behind the drinker. Swiftly and silently, she drew her blade across his throat, and he fell from his chair before he had the chance to cry out.
The other two wouldn’t be as easy; they were too close to each other to take out without notice, although she did have a couple of good spells to assist her. Amelia stepped back into the water, wading toward the bridge. If she used her Veiled Strike spell, she could do some damage to the cultist by the bridge before he alerted the one at the door. She crept closer and closer, until she was less than fifteen feet from him; then she pointed her free hand toward him and whispered the incantation. Pale light shot forth from her hand and hit him like dozens of tiny daggers.
The cultist gasped and swayed on his feet, stunned by the blast. With this, Amelia darted up behind him and thrust her sword into his side.
“What the—” the cultist at the door began. She came running toward the bridge just as the first cultist recovered and turned on Amelia. But the spell had done its job; he was already injured and fell to another strike of Amelia’s sword before the woman reached them. She pulled her sword from the dead cultist’s chest and drew her second one to challenge the remaining cultist, who came at her with twin daggers.
“Daggers?” Amelia teased. “Aww, isn’t that cute!”
“You’ll die by these daggers.” She darted past Amelia’s swords and stabbed her in the stomach before she could dodge.
“Damn it! All right, so you’re fast.” Turning swiftly, she swung her shock sword around and caught the cultist in the shoulder. The woman cried out and swiped with a dagger, laying a deep gash in Amelia’s right arm. But in the end, her blades were just too small, and she didn’t survive Amelia’s next blow with the flame sword. Hoping nobody else heard the muffled cheer from Lieutenant Harim, Amelia dragged the two cultists down the bank to hide them and made her way to the lighthouse door.
Harim had estimated four people between them and the duke. If that was so, then one cultist lay in wait inside the lighthouse. It was a variable she didn’t like, but there was nothing for it. Her Shadow Cloak spell would render her invisible for two and a half seconds, which was longer than it seemed. Anyone in the room would know she was there, just by the opening of the door, but it might give her an extra second or two to launch an attack. She raised her hand, which vanished when she whispered the incantation, and opened the door.
The cultist inside the lighthouse didn’t realize what was going on at first. He looked up at the mysteriously opening door and stared at it curiously, giving Amelia time to reach him before she became visible again. She got in a good jab, but he backed away quickly and leveled a palm at her, calling a fireball into his hand, and lobbed it toward her head. Dodging but still getting singed, Amelia charged him and ran him through before he could get off another shot.
“You’re doing to die,” he whispered smugly as she was removing her sword. “You’re all going to die, and Angof will raise you to serve in his army.” He perished with a sinister grin on his face.
“Okay, well, that was disconcerting.” She wiped the blood from her sword and assessed her injuries. She drank one of the Wyresses’ powerful concoctions to help the stab wound and the burns, but the gash in her arm was going to need stitches. Unfortunately, she hadn’t thought to ask the Wyresses for anything to stitch herself up if necessary. She knew from playing around the lighthouse as a child that a medical kit was in a cabinet by the ladder, so she went to the cabinet and found the kit still intact. As quickly as she could with one hand, she worked around the blood and put a few rough sutures into the wound. It took way too long, and she was afraid someone would walk in at any time, but no one entered in the fifteen minutes or so it took to stitch the gash and bandage it. When she was finished, she drank another healing potion, stuffed the remainder of the bandages, catgut, needles, and salves from the med kit into her knapsack, and started up the ladder.
The duke was at the top, tied up and surrounded by a filmy ward. Two dark-purple crystals floated in the air, keeping the ward in place.
“You don’t look like a Bloodthorn cultist,” said the duke, a distinguished-looking Breton in his late forties, as he struggled against his bonds. “I assume this is a rescue attempt?”
“Not just an attempt. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“You’ll need to smash the focus crystals. I’m a bit of a mage, but I’m afraid I’m powerless with this ward around me.”
Amelia drew her shock sword and swung at the first crystal. It cracked but held firm, so she swung again as hard as she could. This time it shattered, and the duke groaned in pain.
“It’s all right. It only hurt a little. Now the second one.”
She smashed the second crystal with no trouble, and the duke sighed with relief.
“Thank you—what’s your name?”
“Thank you, Amelia, but I’m not the only prisoner. There’s a woman, apparently someone who poses a threat to the beasts. They plan to execute her.”
“Any idea where she is?”
“I heard the cultists talking; they have her in one of the nearby houses. I’ll get myself out of here. You go find her.”
“I’m not going to just let you run off unprotected, Your Grace. We’ll go downstairs together, and I’ll make sure the coast is clear. A Lion Guard lieutenant is waiting just across the bridge, and he can get you the rest of the way to safety.”
“Agreed. When you find her, I’ll want to speak to her. If she really is a threat to them, perhaps she can help us.”
She led the duke downstairs and waited until he was safely across the bridge, then turned to search the other houses. There were three on the island with the lighthouse, and after fighting a handful of cultists, she found the woman in the house on the end. The one-room cottage was home to a merchant and his wife, but the interior was ransacked and the merchant lay dead on the floor. The wife was nowhere to be seen, but the woman Amelia was looking for was tied up in the center of the room.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Gloria Fausta, would you?”
The woman raised an eyebrow in response. “They sent you to be my executioner? You couldn’t lift the axe, let alone deal with all the blood.”
“Be nice; I’m here to free you.”
“Splendid! Cut me loose and we’ll go kill Falchou and his werewolf dogs!”
As she cut Gloria free, she said, “I hear you pose a threat to them.”
“Let’s just say I have a unique perspective, some inside knowledge that will help put an end to the mangy dog.”
“We need to go back to Aldcroft before we go for Falchou. Duke Sebastien wants to speak with you.”
She stood up and rubbed her wrists, which were raw from the binds. “I don’t have time to talk with the duke—oh, very well. Let’s just get this over with.”
Amelia reluctantly lent Gloria one of her swords, and they made their way back to Aldcroft together. They only encountered two cultists—a pair she had missed on her way in—and they made short work of them. When they arrived in town, they went to Chamberlain Weller’s house to see the duke.
He was sitting in the living room with his wife and daughter. He pulled Gloria aside for a lengthy discussion, during which Lady Sebastian expressed her undying gratitude to Amelia for saving her husband. After a few moments, the duke called Amelia over.
“Gloria has expressed serious concerns about Camlorn and Aldcroft with respect to Falchou and the werewolves,” he told her, “and I share those concerns. We would likely be dead if not for you, and you have our thanks. I’m hoping we can count on you to help us eliminate the werewolves.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Gloria suspects Falchou’s agents are among us, here and now.”
“You mean in Aldcroft?”
“We believe they may be hiding among the refugees on the docks,” said Gloria. “You and I are going to root them out and kill them.”
“But how do we do that? Werewolves can hide in human form; they’re practically undetectable.”
Gloria pulled an amulet from around her neck and handed it to Amelia. “This can locate hidden werewolves. We’ll have to be careful, because they don’t appreciate having their secrets revealed.”
“Let’s go, then.”
“I need to stop by the Lion Guard encampment to arm myself first.”
They left the duke’s house and headed across town toward the camp. “So how does this amulet work?” Amelia asked on the way.
“It bears the Call of Hircine. Werewolves can’t resist the call, and they’re forced to reveal their true nature.”
“Gloria, how do you know all this?”
“You should mind your own business!”
“So it’s a big secret? That lends itself to all sorts of assumptions, now, doesn’t it?”
Gloria sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I know so much about werewolves because I hunt them. Falchou is my ancestor, and my family has had to deal with that shame for generations. I do what I can to make up for the atrocities he perpetrated.”
“Wait, he’s your ancestor? I didn’t know werewolves were long lived.”
“Oh, Falchou is long dead. I don’t know how, but he’s back.”
“Angof,” Amelia said shortly. “He’s a necromancer.”
“And he raised him from the dead? Lovely.”
After Gloria armed herself with a sword and shield, they began wandering the docks, surreptitiously holding the amulet toward refugees as they passed. Nothing happened initially, and Amelia began to wonder if it really worked, but then someone had a reaction.
“It hurts! My skin is on fire!” cried a man just outside one of the warehouses. He looked up and snarled at them, his eyes burning with fury. “I’ll chew on your bones and gulp your blood!”
“Die, you werewolf scum!” Gloria cried.
He only took an instant to shift. They were on him immediately, three swords against his claws, but it was still a hairy fight. Refugees ran screaming as they battled the creature, blood and fur flying, cries of pain and angry snarls ringing through the air. Amelia came very close to being bitten, and Kireina briefly crossed her mind. Her friend wouldn’t like it if someone else turned her.
When all was said and done, the werewolf lay dead on the ground, naked and in human form, and Amelia and Gloria were covered in blood and gore.
“Well,” said the werewolf hunter. “That was fun.”
“If you say so.”
They found three more werewolves on the docks, and by the time they reported to the duke’s house in the wee hours of the morning, they were exhausted. The duke sat by the fire nursing a brandy, and he sprung out of his seat when they entered.
“By the Eight! I assume by your appearances that Falchou’s cursed offspring are here in Aldcroft.”
“I’m afraid so, Your Grace,” said Amelia.
“It seems that once again, I’m in your debt. As is Aldcroft. I’ve been informed by Chamberlain Weller that you’re a sellsword. Be assured, Amelia, you will be well paid.”
“Thank you. What’s next?”
“What’s next is we need to capture a live werewolf,” said Gloria.
“You postulated that Falchou had been summoned from the dead by a necromancer. We need to learn more, and I doubt any of them are just going to give us information. I can do a ritual to force the information from them, but I need a live one.”
“Understood. But tomorrow. You and I are both beat.”
“Agreed.” Gloria turned to the duke. “We’ll find out how we can defeat Falchou and then report back here.”
“Very good. And be careful.”
* * *
After a bath and a good night’s rest, Gloria prepared to set up her ritual in a cave on the shore north of Aldcroft. She directed Amelia to Sergeant Armoil Viranes, who evidently knew of a way to capture a werewolf.
“So you want to get one alive, eh?” said the sergeant, a heavily armored soldier with a shaven head and a stern visage.
“Yes. Gloria Fausta said you could help me with that.”
“Indeed I can. We captured a werewolf at Camlorn, for a little while, at least. Lexi! Front and center!”
A pixie-cute soldier in leather armor emerged from a tent and dashed over. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old. “Yes, Sergeant!”
“This is Battlemage Lexi. Lexi, our friend here needs to capture a werewolf.”
“Right, I can help with that.” She turned to Amelia. “So here’s what we’ll do: you fight the werewolf and keep it busy, but don’t kill it. I’ll cast a spell to enthrall it. Just do your part and leave the magic to me. I’m an expert.”
“Will do. Thank you, Sergeant.”
Amelia and Lexi made their way out of the large military gates on the north side of Aldcroft and headed out onto the moors. The smell of rot was even more prominent out here. The ground was soft and soggy, completely submerged in many places. Low hillocks were home to crocodiles, nirnroot, and water hyacinth. And werewolves. Looking out across the expanse of the moors, Amelia spotted three of them.
“Divines preserve us,” Lexi muttered softly.
“Don’t worry; they’re fairly spread out. We shouldn’t have to bother with more than one if we’re lucky. Let’s go.”
They sloshed across the landscape until one of the beasts picked up their scents and charged them. Amelia fought it off while Lexi cast her spell, and suddenly the werewolf gagged and choked, then fell dead in the water.
“Er, I think that time I overdid it. Let’s get another one.”
While Lexi cast her spell, Amelia engaged the next werewolf, keeping a careful eye on the third one, who was a bit too close for comfort. It was busy eating a crocodile, though, and ignored them. She managed a few crippling strikes before Lexi said, “Got him!”
But like the first one, it gagged and perished.
“No, no, I haven’t. Oh, mudcrabs. Now we need another werewolf.”
They approached the werewolf eating the crocodile, and Lexi cast her spell again. This time a glimmering ward appeared around the beast, and he howled in frustration.
“By Julianos, it worked!”
“Thanks, Lexi,” said Amelia, doing her best to suppress her annoyance at having to fight three werewolves while the young mage fumbled with the spell. “I’ll take him to the cave, and you get back to Aldcroft.”
She led the werewolf across the moors and around the narrow bayshore to the cave. He followed along, cursing at her every step of the way, but she ignored him. She could understand his anger, but she didn’t want to start a conversation with him, so she stayed quiet.
Gloria was waiting for them deep inside the cave, in the center of a small henge. She stood among several altars, which were laden with candles, herbs, and crystals. “You caught one! Good, let’s get him into the circle. I’ll create a link between the three of us so we can see into the werewolf’s past—and hopefully Falchou’s past as well. The connection between sire and offspring is strong.”
Amelia pointed to the center of the circle and said, “Stand there.”
The werewolf growled at her but obeyed.
Amelia stood next to Gloria, who held her hands out and muttered an incantation. The ward around the werewolf glowed, and a ghostly shape appeared behind him. Amelia thought someone was actually there for a moment, but then she realized it was only a memory, a vision. And it was a face she recognized.
“Now the legendary werewolf lord shall fulfill Molag Bal’s purpose!” Angof boasted. “Arise, minion. Arise from the dead!”
A werewolf crawled out of the ground before Angof and growled. “I serve no one, Reachman!”
“Serve or suffer, cur! I’ve bound you to my will.”
Falchou thrashed, crying out in agony until he finally relented. “Yes! Yes, I will submit to you!” He stopped writhing and snarled, “But know this: one day soon I will rip out your heart and eat it whole.”
“Empty boasts from Molag Bal’s newest slave. Come, Falchou. We have business.”
The image faded, leaving only Amelia, Gloria, and the captured werewolf.
“So it was Angof,” said Gloria.
“No surprise, really. But Angof and Falchou working together—the implications are terrifying.”
“The only way to stop Falchou is to kill Angof.”
“You! Humans!” the werewolf called. They turned to him and he said, “You are fools. You have failed; your duke has been given Hircine’s blessing, and he will destroy everything he loves. Now release me or kill me. Just get on with it!”
Amelia drew her flame sword and swung it, laying open the werewolf’s throat with the odor of blood and burning fur. It collapsed to the floor before her.
“Shit!” Gloria groaned.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“There is, but I’ve learned a bit about you over the last couple of days and you’re not going to like it. I need to die, and you need to take my blood.”
“What? You can’t be serious.”
“Red, we’re wasting time! I’m Falchou’s ancestor. If administered in time, the blood of the master can cure the spawn. The duke has to drink my blood.”
“Oh, sweet Akatosh, I hate this.”
“But you know I’m right.” She went over to one of the altars and picked up a vial. “This poison will kill me quickly, and then you must take my blood. I brought a cup for it just in case.”
“You knew this would happen.”
“I suspected. Swear to me you’ll finish what we started. Save the duke and restore my family’s honor.”
“It will be done, Gloria.”
“Bottoms up.” Gloria hesitated for just a moment before turning up the bottle and drinking the potion, and within seconds she started to sway on her feet. Her legs buckled beneath her, and by the time she reached the ground, she was dead.
“Damn it,” Amelia whispered. But she did what had to be done. She went to the altar and picked up the cup, then returned to Gloria’s body. She slit her throat and held the cup in the stream of blood, squeezing back tears. When it was just over half full, she pulled it away. “I’m so sorry, my friend.”
With that, she left Gloria alone in the cave.
* * *
The duke wasn’t in the living room when she arrived at the house, and she found him upstairs, curled up on the bedroom floor. His wife and daughter knelt beside him.
“I apologize to all of you,” he said painfully. “I thought I could fight this off; I was wrong.”
Amelia held the cup out to him. “Drink this. It will help.”
He took the cup and looked into it. “Blood, I take it?”
“Gloria’s. She was Falchou’s descendant. She said his blood should cure your lycanthropy.”
“Divines rest her soul. Just one more thing Falchou must pay for. Her body is still in the cave?”
Amelia nodded. “She needs to be given a proper burial.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Grimacing, he drank the blood and sat quietly for a few moments before sighing with relief. “And the pain fades. Thank you again, Amelia. My nightmare is over, and I can return to Camlorn.”
“No!” cried Lady Sebastien. “You can’t go back there.”
“You will stay here in safety, but I have to go back and fight.” He looked up at Amelia. “We have another problem, though. We can kill Falchou, but Angof will only raise him again.”
“How do we prevent that?”
“I have friends in the Mages Guild who are working on the problem. They’re trying to discover how he originally died. A few of them have gone to a fort on Glenumbra Moors, where Falchou died for the first time. Meet them there and see if you can figure out a way to put an end to him for good. Oh, and here.” He nodded to Lady Sebastien, who handed Amelia a sizeable sack full of gold.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
“After I rest a bit, I’ll return to Camlorn. I hope to see you there soon, Amelia.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I find out how to defeat Falchou. I’ve sent word to a friend, asking for help. If she arrives before you leave, tell her where to find me.”
She nodded to Sebastien’s wife and daughter and left the house.
Chamberlain Weller met her going in. “Red, we owe you a great debt for clearing the town of werewolves.”
“Chamberlain, you owed me a great debt before I crossed the bridge into town. As far as I’m concerned, you can all rot in Oblivion. What I did, I didn’t do for the people of Aldcroft. I would have done the same for any town in Glenumbra because it was right to do so, no matter what my personal feelings were, and because I was getting paid. But don’t expect me ever to offer my aid again, for any price.”
The chamberlain looked as though he had been slapped, an expression that gave Amelia immense satisfaction. “You’re going to Camlorn, I take it?”
“Your father will be there, you know.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not afraid of him anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a werewolf to track.” She turned her back on the chamberlain and headed out of town toward the moors.