Kori shifted in her sleep as she dreamed. She dreamed of the first day of summer, with the village and surrounding woodlands suffused in golden sunshine. And then, just as he had promised her, her uncle Rudolph came riding up to the village on his fine horse.
"Great news, dear niece. You were expecting me to bring you to Gruenwald to be with your beloved sister for the summer. And so I will, but that is not to be all – to reward your heroism in defeating the cult of vicious lycanthropes last winter, I have an extra special surprise. It has been decreed that you will be reconciled with your father now. Just as it should have been from the beginning."
Kori murmured aloud in her sleep. "Dear uncle, that's not possible. My father died before I could meet him. I was never allowed to be a comfort to him."
"Why say that, dear niece? In this world, anything is possible. You are a demon. You banished a Greater Demon. Why give up on a dream? He wants to see you now and tell you it's alright…"
Kori awoke to the summer sunshine streaming in through her small window. Dreams of that kind had often troubled her. When her father had still been alive, she had always wished that they could have met, even if he did not want actual custody of her. She could have shown him that she was a loving daughter then, even though she had been conceived by a demon raping him. Fate had cheated her of the chance.
She sighed and slipped out of bed and then began to prepare a cup of herbal tea for Madeleine. She would never regret growing up as the ward of Madeleine, the village wise woman.
She swept into Madeleine's larger bedroom with the tea. "Good morning, dear Madeleine. It's a beautiful morning." Kori grinned and gestured to the window. "The first day of Summer! Listen to the birds singing. And I can hear the squirrels in the forest." Kori had unnaturally sharp hearing, like a demon.
Madeleine scowled as she sat up in bed. "Mm. And Rudolph will be along later today. Scheming to take you somewhere dangerous, I've no doubt."
Kori sat on the bed beside her and handed her the tea. "Rudolph only ever wanted to do the right thing," she said softly. "And don't worry – we finished the Wolf Cult six months ago. All danger is passed."
"All danger? Oh Kori… In this world, anything is possible and there are many perils. If you keep putting yourself at risk…" She broke off.
Kori put her arms around her. "Don't fret, dear Madeleine. I won't do anything you don't want." She kissed Madeleine on the cheek. "If it will please you, then I will be sure not to run risks."
After quickly washing in the stream that backed onto the garden, Kori prepared to leave for the early morning market in the village square. She lifted the silver locket that had been a birthday gift from her royal half-sister from the tiny chest beside her bed. She opened it once again so that she could gaze upon the tiny portrait of her sister inside. Erika's beauty captured in paints was always refreshing to see. Kori drank in the details: Erika's long, silky black hair, her beautiful brown eyes with their habitual oblique expression, her rose red lips and porcelain skin. Rudolph and Madeleine both said that Kori and Erika looked alike and that one could tell they were sisters, even though Kori had the green skin that bespoke her demonic birth. To think that in a few days, they would be together again after five long months. "Soon, dear Erika," she breathed.
Outside, the vibrant summer rays had begun to warm the day and the remains of the morning dew gleamed on the grass. The marketplace was already bustling when Kori arrived, the delicious smell of freshly baked bread mingled with the stench of freshly caught fish. Kori did not have any money, but she and Madeleine had an arrangement by which they bartered their services as healers with the villagers – those who could afford to repay them with their goods did so. As far as they were both concerned, this arrangement was enough payment for their treating anyone in the village at any time, including those villagers who had nothing to pay them with.
After collecting fish from the fisherwife's stall, Kori proceeded to the baker stand where Mrs Becker was arranging the newly baked loaves. Her little son Gabi was with there with her. Kori had recently treated a cut he had sustained by climbing onto a wood pile and falling off.
Kori grinned widely. "Hey Gabi. You're looking well."
"'lo Kori. You're looking even greener today."
"Gabi!" tutted his mother.
Kori laughed, touching her green cheek. "I'm going to stay with my sister today. I'll miss all of you in the village, though."
"If you fight wolves again, I wan' to come."
"No Gabi, you don't," said Mrs Becker. "You have enough accidents as it is."
"The Wolf Cult are no more, dear," said Kori. "The danger is over. In any case, we don't want to go looking for trouble. I want to obey Madeleine and stay safe."
"Listen to her," said Mrs Becker.
Back at the cottage, Kori had changed into her Royal Guard armour in preparation for the journey to Gruenwald. Rudolph had not arrived yet and Madeleine and Kori were preparing a poultice for a sick child when at last, Kori heard the murmur of men's voices in the distance and then quite plainly, Rudolph's voice. She grinned.
"What is it? Can you hear Rudolph coming down the road?" asked Madeleine. "Well I can't stop him. You are packed, I presume? I can finish this. You just need to take your baggage outside."
"You really don't want to invite him in?" said Kori. "Wouldn't it be the polite thing to do?"
"I'm not going to pretend to like him or that he is welcome here anymore," snapped Madeleine.
Kori put her arms around her. "Rudolph is not taking me anywhere dangerous. He assured us both in his correspondence that he would not. And I would not do anything to displease you anyway."
"Of course you wouldn't, dearest," said Madeleine, her voice trembling.
Kori kissed her goodbye. "I love you. Please do write to me."
There was a loud rap on the door, just the way Rudolph knocked.
Kori leapt to her feet and opened the door. Rudolph stood there bedecked in leather armour, smiling behind his beard. Kori squealed and flung her arms around him.
"And how is the bravest girl in the Dark Forest?"
"Oh Uncle, I'm thrilled, I've been so looking forward to seeing you again… how have you been? How is Erika?" Kori glanced out into the road to see a cortege of ten men clustered there. "My luggage is all ready and we should not keep your escort waiting around in the road. In any case, um… listen Uncle… Madeleine… is very busy and…" Kori looked at her feet, feeling very awkward.
"Madeleine now reserves her gimlet stare for me," said Rudolph quite unconcerned. "I can live with that."
Ralph, the young guardsman from the Golden Isles was among Rudolph's escort. As two of the men collected Kori's baggage from the cottage, she squealed and rushed at Ralph to hug him, her pony tail flying behind her.
"How nice that you remember me, Lady," said Ralph as Kori grinned into his face.
"How could I forget?" said Kori gazing at him for a moment, taking in once again his limpid, green eyes, his bold freckled face, his pearly white teeth…
"Mount up!" commanded Rudolph.
There was a horse, a fine white mare, brought specially for Kori to ride and the party made their way down the track to the forest, the summer sun now shining brightly overhead.
Some of the men in their escort saluted Kori and she beamed at them.
"All hail Lady Korina, the Wolf Slayer who rid us of Volkov, the ghoulish warlord," said one.
"A deed worthy of a song," said another. "How about the Lady Korina leads us in one?"
Kori giggled. "My singing voice is as scary as my magical scream. And I can't take all the credit. Uncle was there too and Ralph."
"Credit where it's due, no man here could have banished the Greater Demon that possessed Volkov," said Rudolph. "We both have the blood of heroes, Kori."
"How about the rest of you sing a marching song?" said Kori eagerly. "One about heroic feats?"
Rudolph led the men in a Knights Declaration song and their voices rose into the air as they rode between the tall pines of the Dark Forest.
"Hear me now oh thou base and deplorable world…"
Ralph looked a little puzzled. Evidently being from the Golden Isles he did not know this song. Kori nodded at him encouragingly, hoping he would join in.
The song went on:
"Hear me now, Greater Demons and cultists of sin, all your dastardly doings are past,
For a holy endeavour is now to begin and virtue will triumph at last…"
Kori thought the song very inspiring and gave a piercing cry of delight when the men had finished, which caused the horses to flatten their ears.
"Oops, sorry… That was wonderful. Do you think Altfrid, the warrior priest sang that?"
"It was probably from after his time," said Rudolph. "But funny you should mention him. We're going on a quick pilgrimage to his shrine on the moors before we reach Gruenwald."
"Oh, I should love that," said Kori. "I was reading all about him when I visited Vereticus the scholar in the Spring. Isn't it amazing how he defeated the cult of that Greater Demon, the Lord of the Flies? I would have liked to have met him."
At a fork in the forest path, Rudolph split the party, sending some of the men to Gruenwald with Kori's baggage and taking Kori, Ralph and four other men along the path that led to the moors.
Out on the barren heath there was a breeze which Kori found refreshing.
"The path to the shrine is through the marshy ground," said Rudolph. The ground was soft and peaty and Kori could see the dark tufts of reed beds in all directions.
"It definitely looks boggy for miles around, uncle," she said, scanning the landscape with her demonic vision. "But I can see a path…"
Kori rode alongside her uncle leading the way. The party made their way in single file across dry spits of ground, managing to steer clear of the ensnaring swamps around them and eventually the came in sight of an unassuming, stone built chapel. They had just tethered their horses outside the building, when Kori heard an ominous sound from the swamp nearby.
"Beware," she called, "something large is splashing around near the surface… just there."
She pointed and at that moment, a grotesque shape broke the surface of the swamp in the very place she was indicating. It was something like a misshapen lobster, leprous grey in hue, with constantly clacking claws. It pulled itself onto the firmer ground with jerky movements and then scuttled towards them.
Kori leant forward and concentrating hard, she let forth her terrible, magical scream; the strange power that now grew in her as she neared maturity. She focused with all her concentration on the lobster and only the lobster. The sound waves of her cry seemed to coalesce into circles directed at the monster. The lobster stopped in its tracks, antennae waving frantically. Kori unsheathed her sword and her Runeknife and advance towards it. It lashed out with its claws and she struck them hard, cracking their hard shell. The men were there in a moment, attacking it from all sides, prying of its segmented armour with their swords. Now the thing lay broken and twitching.
"Any Granatian knows that this sort of thing means bad magic," said Rudolph. "That it should be lurking around the shrine is no coincidence." He looked up. "Ah, well met father."
They all turned to the chapel-shrine. A wild-haired man dressed in a worn, patchy robe and sporting an equally unkempt beard was standing on the threshold.
"It appears I owe you a debt of thanks," said the guardian of the shine. "May the gods bless you all." He beckoned to them. "Come, you could probably do with a place to recover."
Rudolph advanced to greet the wild looking priest. "I am Lord Sommernacht and Commander of the Royal Guard."
"I'm Father Stein. Delighted to receive you, My Lord," said the priest bowing deeply. "I don't often get such distinguished guests. Come up the rest of you don't be shy. That horror had been keeping me a virtual prisoner in my own shrine and scaring away pilgrims. It is a joyous day that the Royal Guard arrived."
Kori beamed. It lifted her spirits that he was so happy. Father Stein clasped the hands of each of the men in turn, murmuring a blessing, but then when he saw Kori, he gave a start and leapt back. Reaching into the pockets of his robes, he drew out a tablet of dark, stained wood and thrust it at her.
"Ooh, the insignia of Altfrid," exclaimed Kori, leaning forward to see better. The wooden tablet was inlaid with pearl and carved with the runes of the fabled warrior-priest.
"Take that, take that," hissed Stein, thrusting it at her face.
"You mean you would let me hold it?" said Kori, wide-eyed. "Oh, thank you, you are too generous to me, father." She took the tablet from him and held it reverently in both hands. "Did Altfrid himself carve this? These runes… it's like holding a message from him…"
The guardsmen were muttering.
Stein glared at Rudolph. "How can this creature bear to touch the holy symbol?"
Kori looked up startled. "Excuse me?"
"That is rude, father," said Ralph.
Rudolph was frowning. "The holy symbol was to ward off evil creatures. The Lady Korina is virtuous and furthermore, she is my niece, so keep a civil tongue in your head, man."
Kori felt a nasty sinking feeling. So, the priest was not generous. In fact, he was hostile to her… "This is because I'm a cambion, isn't it father?" she said softly. "Have you of all people forgotten Altfrid's message? He said, 'in whoever virtue shows itself…'" She paused, hoping Stein would finish the quote, but instead he pointedly ignored her and turned to Rudolph.
"I will not speak to one such as her, My Lord. She is not welcome here. No demon-spawn will darken this door while I am priest."
"Now see here!" began Rudolph, his beard bristling, but Kori interjected.
"It's alright, uncle. Please don't let there be a fight on my account. If it will keep the peace, I'll wait outside while the rest of you complete the pilgrimage." Wordlessly, she held the tablet out to Stein, but he ignored her and ushered the men over the threshold. She glared at him and lowered her hand.
As the men filed into the shrine, Ralph hung back to remain with her.
"Remarkable how followers of great men can forget their message."
"I know," said Kori, her voice quavering a little. Ralph put an arm around her shoulder. "Thank you for keeping me company, Ralph."
"Your sister would have put the priest in his place." Ralph glanced at the entrance to the chapel and added very softly. "If she were in command, she would allow no such slight against one she loves so much."
Kori fingered the locket at her breast with her free hand. "Absolutely right," she sniffed.
"Erika would say to be your guard. That's more important than the pilgrimage, as far as I'm concerned," said Ralph.
"You are my kind and handsome guard," said Kori with a small smile.
Eventually, the men emerged from the shrine. "You are all worthy of receiving a gift of the holy healing spring, first brought forth by Altfrid, my good men," said the priest in a formal tone. "May his blessings pour down upon you."
Rudolph was holding a gourd. He thrust it at Kori who had to wrap both her arms around it to hold it. The gourd felt warm to the touch.
"See father?" Said Rudolph pointing at the gourd. "Kori can hold the Heal-all, just like she can hold the holy symbol. The gods have no problem with it. I wonder why you do."
"Wait, don't you want the symbol back?" Kori asked of the priest, but he ignored her again. It was most irritating.
"I think you can keep that too," said Rudolph.
They rode away from the shrine. "That priest. So insular," said Rudolph, shaking his head.
"I suppose I'm not used to that kind of attitude in the village, dear Uncle," said Kori. "We're all friends there."
"They're lucky to have you as a healer," said Rudolph. "A pity that not all villages are so fortunate. If only they could be helped. But Madeleine would not approve of you putting yourself in danger to save the lives of the less fortunate. She warned me against straying from our path. She was quite insistent that we press on to Gruenwald."
Ralph gave Rudolph a sharp look.
"No, no, Madeleine would want me to help anyone who needed healing," said Kori gazing at him wide-eyed. "Do you know of a village where someone needs healing uncle?"
"Indeed, I do, dear Niece. The poor folk there are up against it. If only there was a healer who wanted to help them…"
"I do, I do," said Kori. "How soon can we reach the village? What exactly is wrong? I hope I have brought enough of my materials."
"I don't know…" said Rudolph slowly… "it could turn into an adventure … there is much about it that is strange … and remember that foul thing that attacked us outside the shrine? Something is wrong in the Dark Forest, once again. Something uncanny, of the kind that we have not seen since the days of the Wolf Cult."
"Uncle, that's enough of this kind of talk," said Kori sternly. "If there is anyone who needs my help as a healer, I'm not going to ride away and forget about them. Please take me to the village."
"I can see you won't be dissuaded, dear Niece. I expected no less of you," said Rudolph solemnly. "Very well. Onward to adventure!"