Brand cursed when he realized he’d lost track of the damned useless watchman. If he was lucky, he’d find the man back in the comforts of the town. He stood on the path they had been following listening for a snap of a twig under the clumsy oaf’s foot or a cry indicating where he was. Silence reigned. Brand blamed himself. Allowing the Arndt to stop and rest or tuck into some food would have prevented the ordeal of losing the man in the woods. Brand remained uncertain of the watchman’s role in the infernal events of the little town. He needed to find the bastard. Standing around lost its appeal. He headed deeper into the forest.
What little heat from the sun there was quickly dissipated as light tapered off into the evening. Brand paused to rub his sore knee. He promised himself he would take a position out of the field once this investigation was over. The sound of a voice drew his attention away from the pain in his leg. Straightening up he followed the source of the sound. Only one person spoke audibly, but they paused and responded in perfect rhythm for there to be another participant. He paused at the edge of a break in the trees scanning the open area for the speaker. Brand glowered when he saw it was the watchman.
The one sided conversation softened. Brand strained his hearing but only managed to catch a few words. Paladin. Help. Wife. The naive assumption that Arndt was talking to himself about how Brand was helping him occurred and dissolved as swiftly as the beating of the paladin’s heart. He judged the matter of the charred remains and the carcass in the clearing to be malevolent. He drew his sword and allowed blue flame run the length of its blade at once. Whatever violation of the natural order dwelt in this place, he planned to extinguish it. He broke from his cover in the trees and approached the watchman with caution.
“Arndt, who are you talking to?” the Paladin called out. He advanced on the man with deliberate steps and held his weapon in a low guard. “Did you find something?” The watchman mumbled to himself and gesticulated wildly. As Arndt wheeled around and waved one hand out in front of himself wildly, Brand noticed what was clenched in the man’s grasp. The deer’s antler looked impossibly white. The watchman’s eyes widened when he saw Brand’s flaming sword.
“He was right.” The man muttered. “Of course he was right. He told me you were luring me out to kill me. Just like you killed her.” At this the watchman gestured to what Brand assumed was an animal carcass earlier. Brand stopped his approach to glance at it. The obvious details of a human woman remained on the disfigured body. The rib cage looked to have been pried open. A charnel scent wafted in the air this close to the remains.
“Arndt, I didn’t kill her.” Brand adjusted his stance, preparing for the man to charge him with the antler. “That’s the work of the devil that your wife worshiped, not a paladin alive could tear open someone’s chest like that, nor would they.” His palms began to feel damp and his arm grew tired with the effort of keeping the sword ready. He tried to remember the last time he had engaged in combat. It seemed as if a life time had passed since he’d had to fight in earnest. He watched Arndt and waited for him to initiate.
The man seemed at odds with himself. The fist the clutched the dagger rose up to the watchman’s head. His palmed rubbed at his forehead in apparent consternation. Brand stepped forward, wary of any sudden movements on Arndt’s part. He estimated a few more steps ought to bring him within striking distance. Could he use the flat of the blade or would he need to strike to kill?
Something grasped him from behind, arresting his ability to move forward. Brand looked down to see arms white as sun-bleached bone. The hands that curled up onto his shoulders looked like unfinished porcelain dipped in the Carjillien scarlet wine. He moved to strike behind him with his blade, but faster than his eye could follow one hand released him and rapped his wrist before resettling on his shoulder. He heard his wrist snap and sharp pain bloomed up as his sword dropped to the leaves at his feet. Its flame dissipated. He struggled against his captor. The preternatural strength kept him immobile.
Arndt shook his head. Paused. Began nodding. The watchman crept forward. Leaves and brush shuffled as the man’s feet slid closer to Brand.
“Fight it Arndt. You have to reject its influence.” Brand shouted. Arndt paused. Shook his head again. His advance resumed. Brand offered up a silent prayer. He felt the antler grind against his cloth. The enchantment imbued on his robes suspended the advance of the weapon. Arndt began murmuring in what sounded like Old Vargothian. The antler began to glow. Slowly it pushed into Brand’s gut. The next stab came faster. One after another, puncture wounds opened up his gut. The last thing Brand saw was Arndt walking away in the company of a man. A man with a jet black goat skull where his head ought to be. The horns shone like a cardinal in the snow.
Apropos of: Arathania