Karl leads Ambrose to the outskirts of Illivan, to a quaint and charming grove. In neat rows golden pecan trees stretch to the amber dusk sky. At the base of each sits a basket of shelled pecans only half-finished, left to sit in the peaceful orchard until the next day’s work begins. Through an iron gate and up a quiet winding path, the two emerge in front of an impressive manse. At the doorway, a dandy butler greets the two, showing proper routine concern towards Ambrose’s condition but letting slip no surprise at the situation, if any exists. The man takes Ambrose to sit by the fire in a large parlor room, with elegantly bound books adorning the shelves and agreeable high-backed chairs that Ambrose sinks so deeply into, he may never emerge. The butler excuses himself as Karl enters, making his way to the liquor cabinet and pours himself a sweet, pungent mead.
“This is more than welcoming. Thank you,” says Ambrose, eyeing the tasteful room and the man who betrayed no hint of wealth before. “I don’t think this is something I’ll be able to spring back from quickly. I hope I’m not putting you out…?”
“Not at all,” Karl admits warmly. “Besides Gerrick and a few other serving hands, the place can be pretty quiet. Truth be told, I appreciate the company. You can stay in my uncle’s room. No, you’re not putting him out either; he’s been dead a while now. The house used to be his, actually, but when he passed it went to me. Not that I wasn't comfortable myself before. I used to be a tax collector.” He chuckles. “Not the most glamorous job, but it pays to have a little muscle when the tithe won’t come forward.” A sad smile flashes across his face, and he repeats, “It’s not a glamorous job. The nobles were the worst part. I only worked for them; I don’t have time for that kind of society. All that pomp and circumstance – it’s a façade; it’s never sincere. But here, the pecan orchard…” He extends an arm still holding his liquor and sighs deeply. “You’re just more in tune with the natural world out here. Keep to the land, make something for yourself. I can even work on my collection.” He gestures up above the mantel, where the heads of fierce game sit impressively mounted to the wall, their faces frozen in their last savage moments. Ambrose nods quietly, appreciating. What an interesting man; I’m glad Alton and I found him.
Days pass with mounting tension. Ambrose is still weak from the gnarled and corrupt wound, and it is only careful tending that keeps him in improving health. But every moment spent recovering in Hart Manor is a moment ofinaction; the full moon will not wait. Ambrose, frustrated and impatient, and feeling more than a bit guilty at the elegant hospitality, meets Karl at the staircase’s landing as the huntsman returns one afternoon from a trip into Illivan.
“We can’t afford to wait any longer. The full moon is tomorrow night. We have to do something, even if I’m in this state.”
“Yes, and we’ll call together any men that will help. We’ll help organize some guardsmen, show them the tunnels, see if we can’t assemble a raid. But you’ve got to rest-”
“I can’t sit idly by while innocent men and women live just above those monsters; I’m going as well.”
The next morning as the sun crests, the two men make their way to a cobble tower on the Low-Town wall, one of the main barracks for the city guard. Worry spreads through the sentinels at the news of such a horrible organization conspiring right beneath their feet. By midday many of the town’s guards are surreptitiously stirring with quiet plans of a raid on the caverns of living rock. As the shadows stretch long in the twilight, Karl, Ambrose, a few watchmen, and a captain gather in a small alley within view of the squalid, shabby building of a half week earlier. As the sun meets the top of the city wall, the signal is given, and the posse storms the quiet building.
The tunnels are conducive to beasts, not heavily armored men, and the group pushes forward with uneasy thoughts. The cave twists and bends as if the party is descending into the gut of some horrible, gargantuan monster, until they find themselves at another ladder beneath a trap-door. A few of the guards break off as Karl, Ambrose, the captain, and two other men lift a heavy slate door and orient themselves.
The sun is gasping its last breaths upon the horizon as they emerge in a large lumber mill. Scaffolding hangs above their heads, gently shifting on thick, iron chains. The group climbs cautiously from the tunnel and only begins to adjust to their surroundings before a sharp bark causes all men to turn.
Across the warehouse in a windowed room is a terrifying sight. Three men, howling in agony, convulse in sharp spasms. Their flesh bubbles and rends itself from their bodies, their spines crack and burst from their hunched forms, and their hands, gnarled and crooked, twist and break unnaturally as their fingers extend into terrible bestial claws. They lumber towards the party, ineptly at first, but quickly evolving into an instinctive sprint.
The fight is one for survival, but the men are armed and prepared. A well-placed strike brings one of the foul beasts to its knees, and the two guardsmen take the opportunity to restrain him with heavy ropes. The other two monsters dart for the scaffolding, with Ambrose, Karl, and the captain in hot pursuit. On the hanging walkways, Ambrose, steeling himself inwardly, summons a patch of slick grease before one of the savage man-beasts, and it loses its footing. Within moments, Karl and Ambrose are upon it, tying it to the metal railing. The final untamed creature leaps from the scaffolding and bursts through a window, finding itself outside on a landing above the lumber complex. The captain vaults onto the roof in pursuit as the full moon in its glorious splendor emerges from behind a cloud.
At that moment, a cry from below pulls the attention of Karl and Ambrose. When they return to the windowed room, their souls sink as they find it empty, save for a pile of heavy rope on the cold stone floor.
At this moment, Ambrose catches sight of Alton, gesturing towards the heavy stone trapdoor covering the ladder to the tunnels. He cups his ear and nods knowingly towards the deep, dark cavern.
“They’ve gone back into the tunnels. Come on, Karl!”
In the tight cave, the walls echo with the sounds of snarling and howling, and Karl and Ambrose’s blood run cold. Whether those are cries of distress or cries of the hunt is a question one cannot dwell on in such a terrible moment.
Alton, several yards ahead, is excitedly leading the two men deeper and deeper into the cave. As Karl and Ambrose turn the last corner, they come upon Alton sitting knowingly upon the middle rungs of yet another ladder, glancing upwards. Not daring to speak to Alton in front of Karl, Ambrose only climbs the steel rungs and lifts the cover, to find himself in a small park garden tucked in a quiet alley behind some tall brick buildings. The moon sits quietly behind a small, wispy cloud.
Karl emerges next to Ambrose. “Where are we? What is this? What-” he begins, but Ambrose cuts him off as the sound of soft footsteps on the stone street seem to be approaching. The two men duck into a small shrub.
Strolling quietly along in the moonlit night is a tall, olive-skinned man. Long, jet black hair extends to the small of his back, and it is clean and dressed. His oddly cut, decorated robes exude a style and class of extreme sophistication. Fierce yellow eyes glow in the night, and his purple lips sit pursed in thought. His hands, with sharp black fingernails, lie clasped behind his back. Without speaking a word, he immediately commands the pair’s attention and fear. He turns into the alleyway.
“Why do you hide in the bushes?”
Ambrose is exhausted from the night and worried his wounds may have reopened. Hiding this as best he can, he emerges from the bush and takes a step forward.
Strolling quietly along in the moonlit night is a tall, olive-skinned man. The stranger pauses before stepping into the garden, seeming to check behind him for any potential followers. Long, jet black hair extends to the small of his back, and it is clean and dressed. His oddly cut decorated robes exude a style and class of extreme sophistication. Fierce yellow eyes glow in the night and his purple lips sit pursed in thought while his hands, with sharp black fingernails, lie clasped behind his back. Those eyes immediately lock onto Ambrose and he commands the pair’s attention and fear, “Why do you hide in the bushes?”
Ambrose is exhausted from the night and worries his wounds may have reopened. Hiding this as best he can, he emerges from the bush and takes a step forward.
“Well, so you’re not a coward. Just a fool.” The man’s voice is cold and enchanting; the same voice Karl had heard in the tunnels. Ambrose pushes down his fear and asks the man, “Are you the one they call Giridharan?”
“Oh? The fool can speak. I am Giridharan,” the man replies, eyes beginning to narrow. “Now tell me, do you know the two men who were in my tunnels just a few nights ago?”
“Perhaps,” Ambrose replies cautiously, “But what I do know is that you are wanted for the murder of eight people and it is my responsibility to stop you.”
Giridharan feigns shock, “Really? You? You plan to end me? You know nothing of what you are getting yourself into, do you?” Giridharan’s hands appear to ready themselves at his sides. Ambrose in an attempt to stall Giridharan, while he musters his energy, asks, “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, you, a common bounty hunter wants to end the great Prince of Wolves!”
“Prince? Do you mean you’re noble?” Ambrose retorts.
“Well of course. Can’t you tell?” Giridharan chuckles as he waves a hand over his form.
“You don’t look like any noble I’ve ever seen.” Ambrose chides mockingly.
“I’m sure to you I must seem a fantasy. A handsome man from a faraway land,”Giridharan grins. “Come to change your world. I am a prince; Second Son of the King of Bhalrooz. Giridharan. Kalravani.” His head tips momentarily back as he basks in his own pride. “
”Isn’t this something most would keep a secret?“ Ambrose continues to chide, ”A murderer; of nobility?“
”I certainly make it no secret of who I am. As Tunak’s Chosen I plan to herald myself as I spread his gift and shepherd his followers north to the Call."
Ambrose nearly shudders beneath Giridharan’s words. ”Tunak’s… gift?“
”Tunak, God of the Hunt; he gave me this power. The divine right to hunt whomever I choose.“ As his voice begins to swell, Giridharan’s hands rise half clenched into fists as his bones begin to morph into more bestial claws and his gaze becomes more savage. The hairs on Ambrose’s neck begin to stand. "I think it’s time we end our conversation as you see I have other things to attend to tonight. But before we… part, I have one correction for you. You said I am wanted for the murder of eight people. That’s just not true. I’ve hunted dozens since leaving my homeland.“ Giridharan begins to lean forward in preparation of an attack. ”Goodbye ’Bounty Hunter’. Oh, and don’t worry about your friend in the bush." He snaps at Ambrose, "I’ll tend to him next." Giridharan begins to lunge towards the magus.
At this direct threat, Ambrose closes his eyes and thrusts his right arm forward. A searing, intense pain overwhelms him as he feels as if his arm will rend in two. He watches in horror as, from the fingertips down to the base of the elbow, a black, inky corruption snakes down through his veins and bubbles on his raw skin. His fingers curl involuntarily as the pain threatens to tear Ambrose apart, and a horrible sickness curdles in his throat.
Giridharan’s screams turn into howls of agony as the terrible spell consumes him. The black flames lick at his still changing form, and he throws himself to the ground in desperation. His skin warps and melts like wax, and his flesh peels from the sinew and bone. His eyes roll back and pop under the pressure, and his bones themselves shake and clatter as they too are devoured by the fiendish spell.
Ambrose blinks, finding himself on the ground, gasping for air. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath. He thought he had caught a glimpse of Alton in the alley just as he released the spell. Before him lies only a pile of ash, with a modest silver amulet resting within. Karl, wide eyed and terrified, only stares at Ambrose’s form, sitting upright on the dirt. He approaches the ashen remains, and picks up the amulet which is surprising cool, turning it over in his hands. Its shape is that of a snarling wolf, eyes sharp and wide and maw open in a dreadful image. Glancing again at Ambrose, he slips the amulet into his pocket. Whatever the hell happened, there’s no trophy left. I’m owed at least this much.
Ambrose picks himself up. Before he can begin to explain himself, a voice calls from the ladder below. “Is anyone up there? What’s happened?”
The two climb back down to meet the guard captain and another watchman, both badly beaten and barely standing. They explain that many men are missing, but that many more terrible beast men have been captured or killed. "But the leader, Giridharan?”
“It’s finished,” Ambrose concedes wearily. “Tell your men to go home. Giridharan is no more.”
The captain starts to speak, but stops himself, studying Ambrose’s terrible expression. The straggling men trudge silently through the cavern, looking for survivors.
In the dim light of the guard’s torches, Karl, walking in the back, catches a glimpse of a shimmer of light from Ambrose’s pack. An ornate lantern clipped to Ambrose’s bedroll, seems to light itself briefly with some arcane power, its color an indescribable hue of magic. Karl watches as a crack forms itself down the pane of the lantern, until the glass shatters and falls with a delicate tinkling.
The Guard Captain and his troupe help lead Ambrose and Karl through the tunnels underneath Illivan. Both men are shaken from experience with the werewolf leader, Giridharan, but they insist to the guards that they ’are indeed fine’ and ’no, do not need an escort through the city’. As the two try to depart the guards, the Captain stops to tell them, “You two have done a great service to this city. I expect the Queen likely has a reward for you. Though it’s a shame Giridharan’s body couldn't be found. I know you were the one who drew his name at the Lottery, but unfortunately we are unable to pay out his bounty unless we see his body.” Ambrose, slightly peeved, turns to Karl who nods and shrugs. The Captain continues, “Ah, don’t worry. I’m sure the Gods will reward you for the good you’ve done today. May their favor forever be upon you.”
With that, Ambrose and Karl leave the town and arrive at Karl’s manor. Gerrick greets them in the night wringing his hands in worry over their worn appearance. The butler has already prepared the parlor for them and started a fire. Without words, Karl invites Ambrose into the parlor; they have a lot to talk about. He pours his favorite brandy in a snifter and takes to his cushioned armchair next to the already warm fire. His hands shake as he takes a sip. “What happened out there; with the fire, and the… screaming?” Karl’s eyes are locked onto the burning fireplace.
Ambrose removes his pack and sits in the armchair opposite of Karl. He takes a long breath and sighs unclipping the lantern from his bedroll; placing it on the floor between the two. They stare at it together for a moment, and Ambrose begins to recount everything; the ruin, the lantern, Alton, the spell, the god. How he was looking for Giridharan to cast that spell on specifically; how he knew that he should only use it on one so horrible as him. The reason why he and Alton needed to release the next person from the lantern in order to save the world. After it is all said, Karl continues to stare at the lantern expressionless.
“I saw something… in the tunnels. As we were leaving. That lantern lit up and one of those panels cracked away,” Karl gestures to the lantern with a nod. Ambrose looks closer at the lantern as sees that, in fact, the white panel is gone. “Does that mean you succeeded,” he drinks again from his snifter, “y-y’know, with what you were trying to do?”
“I don’t know.” Ambrose shakes his head in exasperation. “I hope so.”
“Well where is this Alton fella? Can he tell you if it worked? Is he here?” Karl begins to look about the room.
“No,” Ambrose sighs again. “I haven’t seen him since I cast the spell at Giridharan.
”Well then shouldn't there be another person here? Is Alton gone?“ Karl asks. Ambrose’s eyes widen as he considers what might happen next.
After another silence, Karl leans back in his favorite armchair and finishes his drink. ”You know, I usually tried my best to keep away from… mages. They usually seemed to bring up trouble. Uh, no offense.“ Ambrose simply nods, he knows this truth from experience. ”But, after what happened tonight I, uh,“ Karl breathes in and shifts his glass in his hand. ”I wouldn't mind if you needed to stay here at the manor for a while. Actually, I think I would prefer it if you did stay.“
Ambrose sniffs at the burning timber in the fireplace. ”I think I’d like that. Thank you, Karl.“ Two men share a silence together, now out of respect for one another. As the fire continues to crackle in the dark, Karl begins to pull out the silver pendant he picked out of Giridharan’s ashes. The fine, silver wolf’s head gleams in the firelight. He motions it to Ambrose to catch his attention, letting Ambrose get an eyeful of the pendant. ”I’m keeping this, by the way. I think I’ve earned it?“ Karl inflects some slight agitation as he thumbs the wolf’s head.
Ambrose holds his hands up, ”Oh, o-of course. I’m not- I didn't plan on taking it from you." Ambrose’s earnest reaction causes Karl to chuckle. The two sit in the parlor for a long time, exhausted from the day’s events. Sitting in silence, the fire dies and the men turn in for bed.
That night and every night following, Ambrose is cursed by nightmares. Each night he hides in a field of wheat lit by the full moon. Each night he is being hunted by a towering beast that tears through the wheat to find him.