Aisling was unused to seeing a familiar face, no matter where she went. Her life had been a nomadic one ever since she had left Eliza behind. Years, maybe decades had passed before she had recovered enough to place herself in civilization again, always longing and hoping without success that she might find Eliza.
There were those she passed by, those whose lives she briefly touched before departure, before she passed only into ephemeral memory. There had been few, such a select few, whose names she recalled and who recalled her, those she considered herself privileged to have met and even fought alongside. The Queen of the Clans was one of those few, her face calm and dignified. Her turquoise eyes and dark skin were unmistakable, her black hair falling past her neck. Her nails were soaked in red, though no drops touched her skin, a reminder of the other woman's skill.
"We haven't seen one another since…what? Barcelona," Thorunn said after a moment of silence. Her tone was casual, but her language was Gaelic. There was a slight pleasure that welled within Aisling, almost a flattery that the werewolf queen had remembered her preference enough to proceed in Aisling's mother tongue without the lightest comment.
"You mean Brasov," Aisling reminded her, returning the favor by speaking the old tongue of the German forests. "Barcelona was the year before."
"You are correct," Thorunn said with a slight smile to her face. Knowing who to trust, Aisling thought, made this simpler. There was a wariness in both of them about their surroundings, concerning the opponents they had just faced and the events that had brought Aisling to Gastovo, similar happenings doubtlessly having brought Thorunn herself. But there was a quiet ease before one another. Aisling held her spear lower, the breeze tickling her. She held a hand forward, palm open. Thorunn reached without hesitation and took hold of Aisling's forearm, the Seer returning the grip, the two squeezing before they offered smiles to one another.
"Thank you," Thorunn said. She looked past the Seer at the body of Aisling's opponent, the wolf she had caught when she had arrived at the town, now with a bloody ruin for a chest. Aisling wiped the blade upon the grass, seeing the body of Thorunn's own foe, instantly discerning only one single wound to the throat, the corpse's mouth open, pink tongue emerging like a grotesque pink flag through sharp silvery rocks. "What brought you here, Aisling Vallee?"
Aisling took the chance to adopt Gaelic again, hoping Thorunn would not take it as rudeness. "I was hunting somethin' else not far away. I came across a dyin' priest in the forest. Father Hanush of Gastovo, he said his name was. Beggin' your pardon, but it'd be simpler to show ya?"
Thorunn acquiesced and Aisling simply looked into her eyes, selecting the memory and allowing Thorunn to watch the last moments of Father Hanush, to see through Aisling's eyes and hear with her ears. The vision ended, the information transmitted in a fraction of an instant. "As for myself," the werewolf said, "I received word."
"Word?" Aisling asked with a cock of her head. "Somethin' I should know about?"
"I left a larger force in Zagreb," Thorunn said simply. "There were whispers of young wolves who had disappeared in the area. We were spread thin enough as it was that I went to investigate."
Now that did surprise Aisling. She realized there was no sense or sign of any other werewolf barring those the two had slain. Come to think, Aisling realized, the corpses had not reverted to their human forms. They remained in wolf form right where they had fallen. Aisling had fought alongside and against Thorunn's type of wolf before. She knew enough to recall that upon death they returned to their human forms. "Ya came here…on your own?" Aisling asked.
"I did," Thorunn said simply. "It seemed simple enough." What she didn't say spoke volumes to Aisling Vallee. Aisling was aware of the war of the wolves, the struggle that had gone on for centuries between Queen Thorunn and the prince in exile, known throughout the supernatural world as warlord and killer, with one name to mark him: The Beast.
The Beast, Siegfried Gunmarsohn, had played little part in the great war with the Dragon even as Thorunn had committed the wolves to the defense of humankind. Siegfried had chosen his moments well. If Thorunn was participating in such a reconnaissance on her own it could only mean one thing: the werewolf nation was scarcely holding itself together. Its Queen was risking herself in the forest than allow any other younger warriors to go themselves. Their holdings were vast over Europe, but that was almost assuredly an illusion of strength, an army wrought of glad. It might take decades, a century before they recovered. But if that was the case, Aisling fervently hoped the Beast, at least, had met his end.
She realized all this and said nothing before the proud wolf queen, offering only a smile and a gesture. "I think we're standin' about too much, Thorunn?"
"Aye, you are correct," Thorunn said. She walked to the corpse of Aisling's foe and knelt down, sniffing quickly. "The corpses remain as they are."
"That unheard of?" Aisling asked.
"You don't know?" Thorunn said, looking up as Aisling sighed, hand to one hip as she held the spear loosely in the other.
"I figure you're the expert when it comes to wolves here," Aisling said. "Seems ya know more than I do, so I'd appreciate it if there weren't any secrets here. Ya have to notice there ain't no sign of hide nor hair of any human being here. Does that nose of yours tell you anythin' or don't it?"
"Some," Thorunn sniffed the air. "I smell…traces of people here. I swear the sooth and ash from a blacksmith's forge. I smell the leaving from stables and small field. I smell remnants of meals, of porridge and grains and the char of meat. I smell spices and more."
"And wolves?" Aisling asked. Thorunn's brow furrowed.
"It's faint. Too faint for an entire missing town," she whispered. "I smell humans, their scents leading them from here. What of you? Does your Remeditary tell you anything?"
"It doesn't quite work like that," Aisling said. She had already tried to cast her mental avatar over Gastovo to find what she could, but the forest was a shield against her vision. She had only picked up on the wolves who had been Father Hanush's killers, returning to Gastovo. "I should've held my hand back," she said. "We could've tried to question one."
"They were not speaking," Thorunn folded her arms. "As for the corpses…no, they were not of Clan blood. Nor do I find that they donned wolfskin to change either."
"Like I said, you're the expert when it comes to wolves," Aisling said in a dry tone. "Anything else ya know of?"
"Of this? Nay," Thorunn said. "Even others breeds would return to their human form- " she paused as she sniffed the air, the memories Aisling had given her sliding behind her eyes. "He said the church, didn't he?"
"The priest, aye," Aisling said. "Reckon we should take a look 'round this village?"
"I do," Thorunn said. "Particularly the church, the homes, the shops. I don't have any trace of my own people, either….those re scents I would know." A sudden spark of relief came to her eyes as she straightened.
"Proper coincidence I find ya here," Aisling said, a mix of emotions churning within her. Solitude was a robe she was used to adjusting but never truly shedding. She departed from others quickly. She and Thorunn had met briefly before during a conflict against other wolves and later opposed to other threats to save others. Aisling, however, was used to working on her own, to succeed and move on.
Thorunn being here presented a complication to that. She knew the wolf queen's ferocity and valor well. There was no question she could trust her. She was relieved to have the companionship, to share the burden with her and to have a comrade. But the notion of remaining so close to another, in a way she could not simply extricate herself from presented something akin to a danger in her. She concealed that feeling with a cocksure smile as Thorunn faced her.
"Coincidence? Hardly," she said. Aisling found herself tense, but Thorunn's smile was a friendly one, a relief behind the lightly stretched lips. "It is a touch of fate. No more and no less. I have seen you fight and risk yourself before, Aisling Vallee, though I don't know you well. I saw you risk yourself against the Dragon's forces to protect others, before he was destroyed. I am less pleased to find a mystery before us."
"Aye, a proper puzzle indeed," Aisling affirmed before she whistled. Otto came over, a handsome palfrey joining him. "Nice horse ya have there."
"Gerhardt is a dependable one," Thorunn said as she rubbed the palfrey's side. Otto pressed himself against Aisling as if seeking validation, drawing a laugh from despite the situation.
"Don't be jealous there, course I love ya, ya silly brute," she said. Otto snorted and rubbed his head to her cheek. "I see Gerhardt there's a mite better behaved, though. Wolves with horses, eh?"
"We can scarcely run the distance of Europe ourselves. They're dependable comrades," Thorunn said. "But as for the village, I see two possibilities. They left voluntarily, or…"
"They were taken rather involuntarily," Aisling said grimly. A thought came to her head, a terrible one as she recalled creatures shaped beyond human imagining, of burning buildings and dying screams as the things from another world glutted themselves upon blood and flesh. And through it al was the figure in black, silent even as every twitch and gesture of its body bespoke savage joy at the slaughter it heralded.
No, Aisling told herself. This was not the work of the City of Never. There would be blood, remnants of the massacre. Nothing she had ever seen from that accursed plane of existence matched what she beheld now and Thorunn's nose had told her nothing. She steadied herself. "We put the horses where they'll be safe," she said. "Then what say we do a little explorin'?"
"I couldn't agree more," Thorunn said, a shadow playing over her face. She folded her arms, Gerhardt remaining beside Otto. Otto gave a snort and scuffed the ground with a hoof, Aisling looking them over.
"You'd know if somethin' was tryin' to sneak upon on 'em, wouldn't ya? Be dreadful dull to have to walk so far on foot."
"I'm not sure if anything can be construed as safe," Thorunn said. "And I have nothing by way of scent, Aisling. But yes, we'll do our best to ensure the horses are well. I have a similar attachment to Gerhardt. He's been fortunate enough to have known little by way of horror."
Aisling led Otto to the first post she found, leaving him and Gerhardt there with reins tied before she stepped away with Thorunn to roam her eyes over a row of houses. "Should we wait for an invitation?"
"It's nice to know your sense of humor has not improved after the past century," Thorunn said in response. "That spear seems unwieldy."
"I've got three daggers and a sword, but this is my weapon a' choice," Aisling returned, hefting it up. "If we had safety here, I would keep it hidden, but right now we're in a village that appears deserted with two defeat wolves in open streets and no tellin' what happened to anyone here. I'll keep it close by, thank ya very much."
"I meant no offense, Aisling," Thorunn said, though Aisling kept her cordial smile.
"Ya didn't give any. Tryin' to make light of a situation keeps my nerves calm. It just ain't often a werewolf's nose and the Remeditary itself ain't any aid," Aisling said. She and Thorunn stepped into the small house, Thorunn sniffing about curiously.
"There was a man here," she said. "A woman, likely his wife." The home was simple to Aisling's eyes, with a small table, a sleeping quarters and little else. "But," Thorunn continued, "no blood again. It's like they stood up and left on their own."
"And children?" Aisling asked. Thorunn shook her head. They went from house to house, ship to shop. The story was the same: each time Thorunn could perceive a measure of former occupants, but each time it appeared as if they were seeking ghosts, with not even a hint as to location.
Several times, Thorunn had detected children, Aisling choosing her words carefully. "Is there…any- "
"No!" Thorunn's voice was suddenly sharp, taking Aisling aback. Thorunn looked up, recovering as her voice lowered. "It is the same story with the children," she said. "It's like they left of their own accord as well. The scents all lead from here, but they vanish. I don't have any hint across to the forest, it's like they disappeared into the air."
Something bloomed in Aisling's mind and she realized, as Thorunn spoke, she was witnessing a memory. Too late Aisling realized the earlier connection was inadvertently still active; Eliza had once warned her a connection could result in strong emotions leading to memories that might be transferred even when one suspected the connection was shattered. Aisling was, for a moment, staring through Thorunn's eyes. There was a pressure on the back of her neck, a large hand gripping her by the scruff. Through shadow, a pair of amber eyes burned in the dark.
The dark had teeth, the night itself leering with silver fangs as a low growl rumbled in the stillness. Aisling was Thorunn, helpless in that strong grip. Something was biting her side and she looked, forced to see the object; Aisling recognized a human bone, cracked open with sharp edges jabbing into her side. Breath was hot along her cheek, a sharp nail tracing over her throat.
It ended, Aisling snatching her mind away, a sense of voyeuristic guilt rising in her stomach. Thorunn seemed ignorant, but Aisling worked swiftly to kill any lingering threads of connection. "Forgive me if I snapped," Thorunn said. "Children being in danger…it rouses me to anger."
"Knowin' that makes me think better of ya," Aisling said. "Same with me," she added. A guilty silence hung, Aisling trying to find the correct words. "If it were…"
"It might be a sign," Thorunn said. "Missing children are often a sign of my brother."
The Beast, Aisling thought. Through her minute contact with supernatural communities, the name of Siegfried Gunmarsohn was well known. No werewolf on the face of the continent was more feared, but this depredation made her turn aside, a disgusted cast to her face. The memory she had seen lingered behind her mind and she realized why Thorunn must have thought of him, as a child alone in the cave, with the bones of children around them.
She wanted to offer a word of sympathy, but it caught in her throat, seeing the determined cast to Thorunn's face. "There's not enough blood here. Missing children would be one thing, but this is everyone without sign of struggle. The wolves we lost here are still missing, with no signs of their bodies. My brother has never been able to resist offering me his trophies when he collects them."
Aisling could sense an eternity of bitterness behind those words, centuries of sorrow and pain thar Thorunn had endured. The wolves, she knew, treasured comrade and kin above all else, while Thorunn must have seen countless perish. To know her brother, the Beast, had exploited this love, made 'trophies' of those she had cared about almost made Aisling wish that this was his doing. Only one monster in her life had ever evaded her, only the herald of the City of Never, the black-clad nightmare. If she met Siegfried Gunmarsohn, she knew it would be his end.
"If it ain't your brother," Aisling said gently, "we should still see. The Mayor's house might tell us somethin'. And the church, which we've been avoidin'."
"Aye," Thorunn agreed. She put her hands behind her back. "Again. I am sorry I snapped. I- "
"Ya don't owe me apology," Aisling said. "I promise that, Thorunn. The thought of kids bein' in danger sets me to edge, too. Ya ain't got no cause to apologize to me for havin' a heart." They stepped to the church, the building in the center of town. No grand, majestic cathedral like Aisling had seen in the great metropolises of Europe, but a small and squat building adorned with the sign of the cross. Aisling pushed a door open. "Hope ya don't mind."
Now Thorunn did smile, her grin almost playful. "Think I'll shrivel up in a church, do you?"
"I didn't mean it like that!" Aisling protested, Thorunn actually chuckling as Aisling waved a hand. "What I meant to say was, I know it ain't your belief- "
"If I minded churches, I'd be rather out of luck with the modern world, would I not? Tyr, Thor and Wotan preserve me, I think we're rather beyond such things. Unless you would mind?" She gestured, Aisling rubbing her head. "I think their Christ might object to a spear being brought into his house, if I recall those stories proper."
That almost brought a laugh from Aisling. "I didn't know ya had a sense of humor, wolf queen."
"Goes to show you barely know me as is," Thorunn returned. "Though the same could be said of me to you."
"And what do ya know then?"
"I like what I know so far," Thorunn said. Aisling felt the guilt at the memory resurface again, turning to the church.
"Takin' that as what it's meant to be. The priest, before he expired, did mention the church, and the people of Gastovo…men, women, kids…I couldn't find anythin' else. A dyin' man rarely gives much clear when you find 'em by the side of the road." Aisling sighed heavily. "At least we've got two heads on this."
The church was a simple one, with carved benches and a small altar. There was a carving on Christ upon the cross upon it. A raiment was upon the altar, similar to what a priest would wear. Aisling would have guessed it had belonged to Father Hanush. The church was undisturbed, no indication any struggle had ever taken place here. Aisling stepped around, finding a bible upon the altar, thick and bound in leather.
Thorunn shook her head when Aisling gave her a questioning glance, Aisling sighing. "Not a single scent?"
"Just more people. Men, women and children. I've got nothing, not from the waters of the well outside, not- " Thorunn paused, sniffing curiously before she ventured behind the altar. She leaned down, sniffing again, her eyes upon the carving of Jesus Christ before them. The carving had been made of wood, Aisling doubting that such a village could have afforded much else.
"It's…fresher," Thorunn said. "Scents attached to it. Something else. A man, human…but so many others. Like others have been touching it."
Aisling came closer. She took a look at the carving, a good and close look. Her eyes widened. "Thorunn," she said. "Come here." Thorunn walked about the altar to stand at Aisling's side, gazing at the wooden carving of Jesus. The figure's body was writhing upon the cross, the carver having even managed to capture the spear in Jesus's side, having even made sure to capture falling drops of blood.
Aisling was not a churchgoing woman any longer and rarely spent her time in such places, but she had been in enough, had passed others by and the iconography was unavoidable across the continent, let alone in the village where she had grown up. Her parents had been what any would call 'god fearing' and she had believed in the holy church all her own life until she had learned of Seers, of the goddesses who had been the stewards of what Eliza had called the Old World.
Like many such statues or carvings, Christ's body was a perfection, muscle highlighted, the figure twisted and writhing there in agony for the sake of mankind. Upon the brow of a high forehead rested a crown of thorns, the long hair falling around Jesus's shoulders. But the outstretched hands were not pierced by crucifying nails, nor were the wrists penetrated. Christ's gesture did not seem a pinioned stretch of torment, but the invitation for a welcoming embrace.
That Aisling could have overlooked. But it was the face that brought a chill to her spine. Far from a beatific expression of dignified suffering befitting a loving god in the flesh, or the expression of sorrowful agony of a man affixed to the cross, this Christ was smiling. The lips were pulled back, the eyes staring at the two women.
Aisling could see, with Christ's lips peeled back, the woodcarver had given the lord and savior a mouthful of sharp teeth.