It was a dark night where the moon was nothing but an adamantine sliver in the sky. Snow glistened on the ground, cold as death and crunching underfoot. The wind was crisp and cold and bit through layers of clothing like knife-blades, rattling the icicles that dangled from the leafless branches of the trees that arched overhead. Aisling paced through the edge of the forest, heading towards the town that lay sprawled along the bank of the river Alchessa. To human eyes, the night would have been so dark that any clumsy mortal would have been stumbling into trees and making his presence known to creatures miles off. But the centaur's eyes were not mortal, and the starlight and faint moonlight were enough for him to see by. His breath plumed in front of him, as though he breathed smoke like one of the legendary fire-serpents.
"I see it," Dovev said curtly, gesturing with his spear towards the lights that shown out from the dark cluster of buildings. It was a rather large town, with cobbled streets and well-worn roads leading through the forest. The centaurs earned a tithe by guarding trading caravans passing through their section of the surrounding forest. Some of the humans they knew there were tolerable as companions. Most were not. It would be better for them if the humans and their settlement did not exist.
"Herdmaster," Dovev said a moment later, his voice respectful. Aisling turned and looked at his second-in-command. The two centaurs were much alike, with long, tangled locks of oiled brown hair set with bones, beads, and feathers falling down their backs. They wore sheepskin jackets to protect their human halves from the winter's biting chill, and thick, luxuriant pelts were draped over their horse-bodies. Graceful, swooping lines and spirals of blue tattoos covered every inch of skin.
"Herdmaster," Dovev said again, this time with his thoughts fully gathered. "Do you... do you truly deem this human trustworthy? He reminds me of a viper, one that lies beneath your hooves for now but would bite at the soonest opportunity."
"You question me?" Aisling demanded, his voice making the wintertime forest around the pair seem as warm as a summertime bonfire. Dovev suddenly found the tree he was standing next to of great and fascinating interest.
There was a long silence.
"The mortal is useful," Aisling said at last. "He brews spells that take away the iron sickness. Look!" The centaur reached upwards and tapped the steel point of his spear. His skin came away utterly unhurt.
Dovev looked wretched. "Some say, among the Herd, that... that we will be turned into plow horses by the mortal's potions and mixtures. Into slaves set with yokes and bridles, or reins and saddles."
"Who says this?" Aisling demanded.
"You know how it is, Herdmaster... I hear it from someone who heard it from their friend who got it from their sister's cousin's foal. These... these lies have no source, but they cause unrest." Dovev looked completely unhappy, and his face was the very picture of misery. Anger flared inside Aisling, and his dark eyes narrowed. He ground his teeth.
"When we return, this will be sorted out," the centaur promised grimly. "I give you my word on it. But first, we visit the human."
"As you command," Dovev replied unhappily, reluctantly following his leader down the slope of the wooded hill and towards the human town.
The town's name was Harlin's Ford, and it had grown from a single cabin and a ferry run by an old man and his son into a haven for weary travelers and the traders that braved the dangerous woodland paths through the mountains. It was the only human settlement to be found for miles in any direction, set high in the Blue Mountains.
But right now, it was asleep.
At the edge of the town was a two-story house with a shingled roof. There was a low wall around it, no higher than nine feet at its greatest point, and the wall was breached by a gate made from iron wrought in strange shapes that looked like vines and letters. Past the gate was the house, and there were runes carved into the lintel above the door and windows, and the plants in the garden seemed halfway sentient. Those that were still alive in the cold weather stirred and turned towards the two centaurs that walked up to the door, their hooves crunching on the gravel path. Dovev tried not to look too closely at the plants. He was afraid one of them might wink at him.
Aisling hammered on the heavy oaken door. A face materialized in the wood, two huge somber eyes and a mouth that was pursed as though it was sucking on a lemon-slice. "Always thee comes in dark of night, horseman," the Doorwarden intoned, as grave as an undertaker, "And always thee leaves long before dawn. Dost thou fear the sun?"
"Tell your master of our arrival," Aisling said impatiently.
"My master accepts no visitors now. Begone, horsemen. Come another night on thy secret errands."
"Open, portal!" Aisling neighed, the words dropping away from the human language after that one command and descending into a form of communication that only equines could understand.
The Doorwarden blinked its wooden eyes at the centaur for a moment, and then the spirit faded back into the woodwork, just before Aisling's hooves smashed into the thick oaken door. It splintered, but would have stood firm if the hinges had been stronger. As it was, the iron hinges groaned tortuously as they were ripped free from the door frame with the force of the immortal's kick, and the door fell back into the house to land on the thick red carpet with a thud that rattled the glass in the windows. Red smoke trickled from the keyhole in a malevolent-looking plume as the Doorwarden was released from its prison.
As the smoke dissipated into the cold winter air, Dovev's keen ears detected the sound of scurrying; of many small feet hurrying over wood and rug, and sleek little bodies worming out of holes and shadows.
Aisling summed it up in one, grimly-spoken word: "Rats."
Dovev's lips thinned in dislike, and the two immortals watched as a small horde of the vermin gathered at the door to the alchemist's house. Small, mad beady eyes gleamed, whiskers twitched, and fat hairless tails curled. In retrospect, the centaurs should have foreseen something of this sort. For was this not the house of an alchemist? The gods only knew what concoctions these rodents had been fed, and what spells had been said over them to make them so fiercely defensive of the house of their master.
"rrrrrrahhhssss...kkkiiiiiillllll theeeemmmm..." that hissing whisper emerged from the throats of more than seventy rats, and then they raced forward in a mass of grey bodies. Aisling and Dovev whinnied in fright, their oiled braids flying about their faces as they stamped their hooves and furiously grabbed at the wriggling bodies—snapping spines and jaws, feeling little teeth biting into their legs and bellies. The two centaurs had taken on mountain trolls, gnolls, and entire packs of werewolves, but this was something different. These savage, murderous rats were small and quick and canny, nimbly dodging wherever they could. Whenever the centaurs managed to kill one, it seemed that two more took the dead one's place.
And then, as suddenly as they had come, the rats retreated back into the house, leaving behind the bodies of their dead comrades.
"What's going on here?" someone demanded. The two bleeding, disheveled centaurs turned and saw one of the town's watchmen standing at the gate and peering at the immortals, his lantern raised high in an attempt to see through the nighttime gloom.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," Azthrak the alchemist snapped in reply, stepping onto the gravel path leading to the house and stationing himself between the watchmen and the centaurs. "This is naught but an illusion I was perfecting. Go about your business, man. Begone." When the watchman hesitated, something crawled out of the basket hanging on the alchemist's arm and started struggling across the ground towards the lawman. The mortal took one look at whatever it was, and fled.
Azthrak picked up what had been attempting to escape him, deposited it soundly back in the basket, and walked briskly past the centaurs. He glared at each of them with his inky dark eyes as he went past, and growled irritably when he was forced to kick aside rat carcasses in order to avoid stepping on them.
"Would it have been so difficult to wait, you overgrown pony?" the alchemist asked peevishly of Aisling, glaring malevolently at the centaur as he went about the business of lighting the lamps in his house. The centaur snorted and pawed the wooden floor in anger, but otherwise held his temper in check. It was never wise to attack a magic-wielder, and neither of the immortals wanted the rats to be summoned again.
"What do you want?" the alchemist demanded, setting his basket down on a small table. Dovev looked into it and saw cut sprigs of winterbloom, as well as different-colored feathers and some roots from a plant that he couldn't identify. There was also, for some reason, a toad. A moment later, the centaur looked away hurriedly: one of the flowers had winked at him.
"The potions," Aisling demanded, not sparing the basket a glance. "Where are they? You promised them last moon-turning."
"They're not ready. And if you want them, I want to see your payment first," Azthrak snapped, looking at the two centaurs suspiciously. He rubbed his hands together, and smiled. His teeth were brown and rotting.
Reluctantly, Aisling pulled a drawstring pouch from around his neck, and tossed it in his hand. It clinked. "Thirty pieces of silver," he stated. "That is all."
Azthrak sneered in disdain and studied his nails. They had been chewed down to the quick from his biting of them. "Is that all you could extort from the highway-bandits?" he demanded, looking decidedly unimpressed with the sum that had been brought to him.
"We could always ride to Tamas Noch in the lowlands, and report your potions to the wizards there," Aisling threatened. Dovev said nothing. He had briefed two yearlings to take word to the guild of mages in the lowland city if he and the Herdmaster didn't return home by dawn. It was not an idle threat.
Azthrak's eyes narrowed. He spat onto the floor in anger, but knew that Aisling wasn't bluffing. The centaur never bluffed. Snarling something incomprehensible in a language not native to this region, the alchemist scurried down a corridor of his home and out of sight.
Dovev took the opportunity to look around. He had seen very few human homes in his 200-year life save the gutted shells that were all that remained of woodsmens' cottages once his raiding band moved through them. The room that he stood in was large, but cluttered and completely filled with strange objects. A severed finger hung suspended in the middle of a crystal sphere filled with golden liquid. A skull with rubies placed in the eye sockets glittered at the centaur from the mantelpiece. A beaker filled with a mysterious red fluid hissed and spat bubbles into the air. There were books and scrolls, maps and scraps of parchment covered with spidery etchings. This room would have been a treasure trove for anyone who desired magic and power.
It made Dovev's nose itch. The smell of magic—burnt iron and the dust from crushed bones, mixed with ozone and something sour yet unidentifiable—was irritating the back of his throat. The centaur coughed once and stepped on a bleeding, injured rat that was attempting to crawl away from the scene of the fight. Its back broke with a satisfying crunch.
The alchemist drifted back into the room like a bad smell, clutching bottles of smoked glass in his spindly arms that were filled with liquid that was thick and dark. "Here," he snarled, thrusting them into Aisling's arms. The centaur leader took them awkwardly, snarling a curse at the implied insult of making him gracelessly shift the bottles until he was certain that he could shove them into the bags draped over his back without dropping one of them to shatter on the floor.
"My payment," Azthrak prompted, folding his skinny arms across his equally skinny chest as he glared up at the centaur. Completely unafraid—that was not wise, especially from mortal to immortal, but mages had ever been apart from the normal way of things. Perhaps this one was right when he thought that he could offer such insult with impunity. Dovev did not know for certain.
"Take it, witch," Aisling spat contemptuously, using the point of his bronze-bladed knife to flick the pouch of coin towards the alchemist. It landed no more than a foot in front of Azthrak, its fastenings coming loose and spilling bright silver discs across the bloodied floor upon impact. "Take it with my hatred."
Azthrak smiled like a weasel about to bite. "I shall," he said, nodding his balding head once. Then, nimbly, he stepped forward and clipped a part of Aisling's mane that grew up his back from the base of his spinal column. "And this as well, as payment for your cheek."
The centaur Herdmaster was too shocked to do anything for a moment, but then he neighed shrilly in anger and reared up, lashing out with his front hooves in an attempt to kick the alchemist down and then trample him to death until he was nothing but a red mush beneath Aisling's hooves.
Azthrak, however, was not so easily defeated.
The alchemist snarled a spell, and the rat blood that was smeared on the floor rippled and began flowing towards Aisling, traveling up the centaurs hooves and legs with a sizzling sound. Wherever its redness touched, it left behind vivid burns, and the red trail steadily advanced towards the centaur's genitalia.
Aisling screamed in pain and cantered out of the house, throwing himself into a drift of snow to quench the burning tide of blood. Dovev, knowing better than to provoke the alchemist, did nothing more than shoot a hateful look over his shoulder as he moved to stand protectively between his commander and Azthrak.
The two centaurs retreated back into the night and their forest home. Azthrak watched them as they did so, smiling faintly to himself.