It was raining when Amelia arrived in Aldcroft, although in her mind, even the rain couldn’t make the place more depressing. The townspeople would say 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 lighthouse off to the south and 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. Two roads led out of town and met up with major thoroughfares that connected it to Daggerfall and Camlorn, but both were rife with crocodiles. The humidity was oppressive year round, not to mention the stench of wood 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 crest 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 a threat like this wouldn’t stay confined to Aldcroft for long. Besides, if what she heard was true, the people of Camlorn might be affected as well. She’d had work in Camlorn before, and it was a nice place. She wouldn’t leave them to their fate. Thus, with a deep breath and a slight tremble in her hands, she crossed the bridge.
A guard standing at the end of the bridge eyed her warily. “Stay out of trouble, and we’ll get along just fine. We have enough trouble with—”
“Oh, piss off, Girard.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Red, is that you? You’re looking good.”
She rolled her eyes at Girard and continued on into the village. The first thing she noticed, even from the edge of town, was that the population of Aldcroft had tripled since she had been there. Most of the new people were set up on the docks, near the bridges, or in a military encampment by the big gates onto the moors. She stopped to ask one of the campers 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 headed 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. 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.”
“Where do they have the duke?”
“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.”
“Do you, now?” 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. “That’s where they took him.”
“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 him?”
“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 hated the town more with every word out of Weller’s mouth. She just had to check herself to keep from becoming unreasonable. There was a job to do, and she couldn’t let her personal feelings get the better of her. “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? Or just intimidate them so much, they didn’t know what to do without him?”
“Perhaps you could help them?” She raised an eyebrow at him and glared until he said, “No, I suppose I shouldn’t ask you to do that.”
“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 him. He was captain of the guard and second in rank only to the chamberlain. 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 that took the beauty, just one man. Chamberlain Weller liked to call him her father, but he was no father.
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 him 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 near the house. He was crouched in the brush, silently watching the activity at the lighthouse.
“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.”
She wasn’t insulted by the comment. Indeed, the ability to get underestimated was an asset. But she assured him, “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 wall on the side toward the back, drinking from a tankard. He would die first. She stepped 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 crumpled from his chair in a rapidly growing pool of blood.
The other two wouldn’t be as easy; they were too close to each other to take out without notice, but she had a couple of good spells to assist her. She wasn’t a bad sneak, but if she could immobilize one with her Dark Talons spell, she wouldn’t have to worry about it anyway. Amelia stepped back into the water, wading toward the bridge. 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. Razor-sharp talons shot up from the ground and trapped him, biting into his armor so he couldn’t move, and Amelia darted up behind him and thrust her sword into his side.
“What the—” the cultist at the door, a woman, began. She came running toward the bridge just as the first cultist recovered and tried to turn on Amelia. But the spell had done its job; he was stuck, already injured, and he fell to another strike of Amelia’s sword before the talons wore off. She pulled her blade from the dead cultist’s chest and drew her second one to challenge the woman, 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 frost 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 short, and she didn’t survive Amelia’s next blow with the flame sword. Hoping nobody heard the muffled cheer from Lieutenant Harim, Amelia dragged the cultists down the bank to hide them under the footbridge 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 waited inside the lighthouse. She didn’t like the uncertainty, but there was nothing for it. She sheathed her frost sword and opened the door with her free hand. There was indeed a cultist in the room, going over some paperwork. He evidently thought she was one of his comrades, because he didn’t even look up at first, giving Amelia time to reach him before he realized she was hostile. She got in a good jab to his shoulder; but he rolled out of his chair, came up to his knees, and leveled a palm at her, calling a fireball into his hand, then 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, blood gurgling to his lips. “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.
“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 slash to her arm and the burns, but the stab wound to the gut 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, and she went to the cabinet and found the kit still intact. She poured a bit of a regular healing potion into the wound and squeezed her eyes shut at the sting; then as quickly as she could, she put a few rough sutures into the gash. It took way too long, and she was afraid someone would walk in at any time, but no one entered in the ten minutes or so it took to apply the stitches and bandage. 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.”
“They went to an awful lot of trouble to immobilize you. Did they see you as a threat?”
“They said they were waiting.”
He hesitated, but then said, “I’m not sure.”
Amelia drew her frost 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.
“Sorry,” she uttered sympathetically.
“It’s all right. Now the second one.”
She smashed the second crystal with no trouble, and the duke cried out in agony but then sighed with relief as the pain quickly subsided. He muttered an incantation, and the ward surrounding him disappeared.
“Thank you—what’s your name?”
“Thank you, Red, but I’m not the only prisoner. There’s a woman, apparently someone who does pose a threat to the beasts. They plan to execute her.”
“That must be Gloria. 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 and sustaining a few more minor cuts, bruises, and burns, she entered the house on the far 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 a woman was tied up in the center of the room. She was dark-haired and attractive, with the well-tanned skin of someone who spent most of her time outside.
“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 Faolchu and his werewolf dogs!”
She pulled a dagger out of her pack that was more a utility than a weapon, and as she cut Gloria free, she said, “I hear you pose a threat.”
“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 Faolchu. 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 grudgingly lent Gloria her frost sword, 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 the duchess 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 Faolchu 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 Faolchu’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.” Having Kireina on hand would have come in very handy at the moment.
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. Faolchu 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 immortal.”
“Oh, Faolchu 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 crossed her mind again. Her friend wouldn’t like it if someone else turned her.
When all was said and done, the werewolf lay dead on the ground, still in beast form, and Amelia and Gloria were covered in blood and gore.
“Well,” said the werewolf hunter. “That was fun.”
“If you say so.” But she had to admit she had enjoyed it too. She loved a good fight, and she had a lot of anger to work off.
They found three more wolves on the docks, and by the time they reported to the chamberlain’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 Faolchu’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, Red, 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 Faolchu 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.”
“You couldn’t have said that before we killed the last one on the docks? Fine. But tomorrow. You and I are both beat.”
“Agreed.” Gloria turned to the duke. “We’ll find out how we can defeat Faolchu and then report back here.”
“Very good. And be careful.”
* * *
Amelia and Gloria spent the night at the military camp. 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.
“Aye. Gloria 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. “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 and handed her an amulet. “Hold onto this; you’ll need it to hold the werewolf once we capture it. 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.”
“What’s the incantation?”
“Just do your part and leave the magic to me. I’m an expert.” Amelia just waited, and Lexi finally said, “Oh, all right. It’s rot soleo, altoor faolsin. But I will use it.”
“Of course. 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 various colorful mushrooms. And werewolves. Looking out across the expanse of the moors, Amelia spotted no less than 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 the 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. If it didn’t work this time, Amelia was going to try it herself. But 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 Faolchu’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 uttered a complicated 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 vision, a memory. 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.”
Faolchu thrashed, crying out in agony until he finally relented. “Yea! Yea, 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, Faolchu. We have business.”
The image faded, leaving only Amelia, Gloria, and the captured werewolf.
“So it was Angof,” said Gloria. “If we kill Faolchu, Angof will just raise him again. The only way to stop Faolchu is to kill Angof.”
“Aye, I’m afraid it’s going to come to that. But we’re going to see what else we can do first.”
“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. He collapsed to the floor before her.
“Shit!” Gloria groaned. “I was worried that he’d been given the curse.”
“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! If administered in time, the blood of the master can cure the blood of the spawn.”
Amelia shook her head. “No. Not gonna happen. We’ll figure something out, but we need you alive. We’ll capture him, and maybe we can find a cure or something. Killing either of you is a last resort.”
“If that were possible, don’t you think we’d have found it by now?”
“I’m not giving up on this, Gloria!”
“Well, I hope your noble attitude doesn’t get us all killed.”
“I’m no noble. I have more common sense than that.”
They went back together and found the duke standing alone outside the house. He was doubled over in pain.
“You’ve been infected, Your Grace,” Amelia said without preamble. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“I should have told you; I’m sorry. I suppose you’ll kill me now.”
“We won’t kill you; Camlorn needs you.” She handed Gloria Lexi’s charm. “I think I remember Lexi’s incantation. You use this to hold him when I’m done.”
Gloria raised an eyebrow at Amelia, then shrugged. “It’s worth a try.”
“Let me just say goodbye to my wife and daughter first,” the duke pleaded.
Amelia shook her head. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Why you heartless—”
“Your Grace, you could lose control and change at any moment. Do you want them to see you like that—or worse, die at your hands?”
The duke seemed to shrink as he sighed dejectedly. “No. You’re right, of course. Do what you have to do.”
Saying a silent prayer to the Divines that she didn’t accidentally kill the duke, Amelia held her hand toward him and said, “Rot soleo, altoor faolsin!” He writhed in pain for just a moment before he calmed, surrounded by the filmy glow. “Are you comfortable, Your Grace?”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” he replied stiffly.
Gloria chuckled mirthlessly. “I’ve never had a werewolf as a pet before.”
“Just take care of him. And yourself.”
“I won’t harm him unless I have no choice, although I think Faolchu would think of mercy as a weakness.”
“To Oblivion with Faolchu. We’re gonna kill him, and hopefully we can figure out how to keep him from being brought back again.”
“The duke had the Mages Guild working on that problem. They’re at Glenumbra Moors, trying to figure out how he died the first time. Maybe you could talk to them.”
Amelia nodded. “I’ll head there; you take the duke to Camlorn.”
Gloria placed a hand on Amelia’s shoulder. “Thank you, Red. For not letting me die.”
“No thanks are necessary; you know I couldn’t do that. I’ll see you when I reach Camlorn.”