Mervyn ran. There was an orc behind him. She was covered in blood, she was armed and she was faster than he was. None of that bothered Mervyn. He didn’t have any time to be worried about a murderous orc warrior chasing him. He was too concerned with the horde of Changelings that were bounding over the rooftops in pursuit of them both.
“We’re almost out of the dweomer disruption area!” Mervyn called back to the orc. Kalla. He’d heard one of the warriors she led call her Kalla. Mervyn spoke only a few of the Orcish languages, and none of them well, but he knew some of the common names they used.
“Cast a spell then!” she yelled.
One of the Changelings, faster and more daring than the rest, flung itself down from the rooftops. It flew at Kalla with fangs bared and claws lengthened into foot long steel needles. It died in that form as well.
In mid-stride, just as the creature had been about to skewer her, Kalla spun in a circle, whipping her axe around in an arc that slashed through the Changeling’s outstretched arms with a fiery red glow, its momentum unslowed. Kalla skidded backwards, away from the Changeling and then shot forward. She struck downwards as she reached the fallen monster, converting her forward momentum into the force of the axe’s blow.
Mervyn felt himself exit the dweomerist’s magic disruption field and skidded to a halt. He turned in time to see Kalla cleave the Changeling in two. Magic flared around her hand and the Changeling’s heart crystal flew onto the chain she carried.
The Changelings that were pursuing them didn’t scream at the loss of their companion. They ran on silently, closing the gap to their prey. Relentless. Just as they’d been designed to be.
Kalla turned to Mervyn as he called up the threads of magic for a teleportation spell. Her jaw was set like stone and her eyes were hard and cold as the winter lands she hailed from. At another time, if she’d look at him like that, Mervyn knew it would have meant his death. He wasn’t warrior or wizard enough to tangle with a creature the likes of Kalla. All he could do was flee.
With a haste granted by years of practice, Mervyn intoned seven of the nine syllables of power for the spell. They were the names of the primordial forces that formed the world. He gathered up lingering flickers of their celestial might and wove them into a skein to direct the energy of the cosmos to bend to his will. Escape was at hand, so he took a single step towards where the gate would form but then stopped.
He was too smart, even when terrified, not to see where the last syllables and that final step would take him. Fleeing through the gate promised safety, but the promise was a lie. He could escape the Changelings who were after him. He could escape from Kalla before she could reconsider her hasty decision to ally with him. He could step from an alley where his life was in imminent danger to a library far away where none of the Changelings that were chasing him could touch him. He could escape them, but only for the night.
The gate was a trap. If he left the alley, left Kalla, and tried to flee the Changelings, they would pursue him forever. From the moment he entered the portal till the day that he died, he would have to live in fear that they would find him.
He wouldn’t be able to trust anyone he met. Not stranger and not friends. Any of them could be replaced by a Changeling at any time. Only a loved one was difficult for a Changeling to duplicate. The memories they took were cold, sterile things. They could mimic emotions but the mimicry was hollow. That didn’t matter in Mervyn’s case though. He didn’t have any loved ones.
In his heart, Mervyn knew himself to be a coward. He hated danger and fell apart in the face of peril. It wasn’t bravery that decided the matter for him therefor. He held the gate open for the few precious seconds Kalla needed to reach it, not because he had the courage to travel with her, but because he was terrified to travel without her.
Rather than the library in the capital which was a good thousand miles away, Mervyn keyed the teleport spell to function on a more local scale.
“Where is your rendezvous point?” Mervyn asked.
“Shurkiln Grove.” Kalla said. The orcs under her command had fled in different directions after the brawl in the tavern had erupted out into the streets. Mervyn had worked with adventuring parties for years though and listened to far more of their stories than he cared to recall. The successful ones shared several traits that he’d observed with effective contingency plans being one of the prime ones. Anyone in an adventuring profession knew it wasn’t a matter of “if” a plan would fall apart, but rather “when” and “with how much warning”.
Mervyn adjusted the gate’s destination and spoke the last syllable of power. The energies that flowed through him echoed across the night sky. In less than a blink, the alley and the Changelings had been left far behind and the light of the metal glow flies that danced in the Shurkiln Grove played around them.
“I thought you were going to run.” Kalla said. The Grove was a sacred spot in the natural world, one of the few places Changeling magics were restricted. Despite that, Kalla’s gaze darted over every corner and nook and shadow looking for attackers.
“I did.” Mervyn said. He tied off the threads of the spell and obfuscated their destination with as much care and precision as he could muster. His shaking hands made him look older than even the grey of his beard and balding head did, but he knew the tremors had no connection to age. If he was twenty once more, his hands would still shake the same.
“Didn’t leave me behind.” Kalla said.
“I couldn’t.” Mervyn said.
“Compassion? For an orc?” she asked, disbelief bordering on mockery in her tone.
“No.” Mervyn said. “You don’t need my compassion. You do need my knowledge though. And I need your axe arm.”
“Don’t need you at all.” Kalla said.
“I think you do. You retrieved the twelfth Changeling heart with that last kill. I can already guess where it will lead you. Cast your spell. It will point you to the Ruins of the Lost Shadows.” Mervyn said.
“If it does, why shouldn’t I kill you? Only a Changeling would know where their lair is.” Kalla said.
“Because I don’t know where their lair is. I know the one area in this region that could reasonably serve as their lair.” Mervyn said.
“I don’t travel with humans.” Kalla said. “Rotten untrustworthy scum the lot of you.”
“Yes, we are.” Mervyn said. “Don’t look surprised. I’m a sage. I’ve studied your histories. I know what my race has done to yours. And what yours has done to mine. I also know what the Changelings have done to both of us. And I know that either you succeed and destroy the Changelings or we’re both going to die on the blade of someone we mistook for a friend.”
“Talk is cheap.” Kalla said.
“Not mine. I get paid very well for the knowledge I’m offering you.” Mervyn said.
“It’s still cheap. You’ve got no blood on the line.” Kalla said.
“That’s how I prefer it. I’m not a warrior like you.” Mervyn said.
Kalla laughed at that, as though Mervyn had admitted something terribly embarrassing.
“Then run away.” she said.
“No.” Mervyn said. He’d run away as a boy, he’d run away as a young man and he was still running. He’d never escape the ghosts of his past failures but the years had given him one gift: he was too old to run anymore.
“Run Away!” Kalla screamed in his face.
Mervyn knew that was good advice, but his feet remained where they were. After all his years he was still as scared as he’d been as a toddler but for once it didn’t matter.
“I’m going to the Ruins of Lost Shadows.” he said. “Follow me if you wish. I’ll probably die. We’ll probably all die. I don’t care. Everyone dies.”
And with that he took a step forward. He expected Kalla to step aside and let him pass or to chop his head off. Instead he bumped right into her.
“Everyone dies. Some people get to live too.” she said. “We’ll wait for the others to catch up.”
And just like that, Mervyn’s life as an adventurer began.