Actions

Work Header

Isle of Thorns

Chapter Text

At first, it had been a mistake coming to the Isle of Thorns.

That had been his initial thought at least. Desperation and a need to lay low for a while had led him to this place. But he had quickly discovered that opportunities to satisfy his other needs in safety were dangerously few and far between. In such an isolated area, eventually, he would slip. Eventually, he would be caught -- or worse.

But that was before he discovered the grotto near the northeastern coast. Before he discovered it.

By rights, Hans had actually found it first. Stumbling over the rocks as he came across the hidden crevasse, Hans had eagerly descended into the dark, thinking that perhaps the rumours of the Von Gunthers' lost treasures had some truth to it. Blinded by greed, the Eisen failed to realize the full impact of what was found -- awakened. Hans barely lasted two seconds before he had been torn apart, but the echoes of his strangled screams throughout the grotto seemed to last an eternity.

He, however, stood firm where Hans had failed. It encircled him, touching him carefully and investigating every dark impulse and thought he possessed. It found a kindred spirit in him. A fellow parasite willing to do whatever it took to survive. It was pleased.

And it understood, too, how limiting the small isle really was for both of them. That wouldn't do at all; that would have to change. Now that it had broken free from the long slumber, appetites would have to be sated. Fortunately, he already had a plan. And, as a gesture of goodwill, offered it the services of the minion he had managed to ensnare since arriving on the Isle.

It was doubly pleased. And so was he. Soon -- very soon -- both their needs would finally be satiated.

***

"Eisen. Theus Almighty, why do we still have to be in Eisen?" Fortunato Valeri sniffed disdainfully as the rain lightly spattered on him. Shaking his head, the Vodacce looked over the rail of the small ferry towards the rocky island they were heading.

"I like Eisen. Hard working people who don't mince words. Unlike you, Vodacce..." Behind Fortunato, Ulf Pedersen's voice rumbled. Biting back a curse, Fortunato looked behind him to see the large Vesten warrior staring back at him grimly, arms folded across his massive chest.

"'Unlike me'?! Listen, you bear-skinned buffoon, I don't mince words...I tell things as they are!" The Vodacce rolled his eyes. "I just choose to do it with tact, something most of these mud-sucking peasants seem incapable of doing!"

The Vesten growled, "I meant the 'hard-working' part. Or have you forgotten what happened in Buche with the carriage at the Jenny house AGAIN?"

"That was not my fault! I keep telling you, I got sidetracked when the Musketeers showed up. How was I supposed to know about the powder keg they had next door? Oh wait, that was YOUR job to tell me! But you got distracted by those sailors!"

"Gentlemen!" A woman's sharp voice rang out, silencing both men. Lady Grace MacKenzie stepped onto the deck, digger's coat keeping off most of the rain. The Highlander sighed. "It's far too early to be havin' such scintillatin' conversation. Or need I remind you both where we're goin' is supposed to be a place o' peace?"

"...he started it..." Both Ulf and Fortunato muttered at the same time. The Vodacce grimaced slightly, nodding towards their destination. "The Isle of Thorns...doesn't sound very peaceful, Grace."

"Well, it used to be a prison for the Eisen Imperators back in the day..." The Explorer nodded. "Anyone the crown thought it'd be too dangerous to execute was sent there in exile. The Von Gunthers served faithfully as its wardens. After the War o' the Cross ended, Baron Adelbert decided it might better serve Eisen as a place o' sanctuary an' diplomacy. Somewhere where the workers o' the Vaticines an' Objectionists could retreat to an' hold open dialogue. Even a priest or two o' the Church o' Avalon has been here. No Ussuran Orthodoxs yet, though the invite has always been open."

"Diplomacy..." Fortunato offered a weak, though honest, smile instead of his usual cynicism. "Theus knows this country could use the healing after the War. Diplomacy is a welcome change of pace."

"Even if it comes from 'mud-sucking peasants'?" asked Ulf, not-so-innocently.

The Vodacce opened his mouth to snap at the Vesten, then immediately shut it. "Point," he said instead, chagrin on his face.

"Who is this Baron Adelbert?" Ulf turned to Grace. "Is he a good man?"

"Baron Adelbert Von Gunther...I've not had the pleasure o' meetin' with the man myself, but he's made a few monetary donations to the Explorers' Chapterhouse in Freiburg. Made a few monetary donations to some o' the universities an' academies throughout Eisen actually. Never married, never had children. He's gettin' on in years from what I've been told. I don't know what'll happen to the title once he passes on."

At that, the trio grew quiet for a while, all of them looking towards the isle they were approaching. Finally, Fortunato spoke "Any idea what exactly was found?"

"Not sure yet," Grace frowned. "The evidence the Society was given definitely leads us to believe it's Syrneth, whatever it is. We're to do a preliminary search o' the isle an' see what's up. No sense in endangerin' the excavators all willy-nilly, you know."

"Just us," said Ulf, teeth gritted.

"Isn't that always the way?" Grace offered the Vesten an apologetic smile. "One more thing, Baron Adelbert is hostin' a few important guests right now. None o' them are willin' to leave just yet, so we got to be careful here. Not step on too many toes."

"Diplomacy?" Ulf arched a brow, then shot a look towards the Vodacce, who was staring back at him with a smirk.

"Aye..." Grace sighed. Worry was already creasing her face. "...diplomacy."

Chapter Text

The rain was starting to pick up as the ferry docked. Standing on the small pier was a middle-aged Eisen man dressed in a high-collared coat. He was flanked by another man with a clean-shaven head, obviously some sort of servant. The Eisen grinned, clasping his hands as the trio left the ferry.

"Lady MacKenzie, I presume?" He carried on before Grace had a chance to respond. "Welcome, welcome! It is so good that the Explorers' Society was able to answer us in due haste! Here, let Gabriel carry your bags and show you and your associates to your rooms!"

"Errr, thank you, Herr...?" Grace finally managed to say. Meanwhile, Ulf had waved off the servant, then nudged Fortunato hard in the ribs before he could hand off any luggage. The Vodacce shot the Vesten a black look who, for his part, pointedly ignored him.

"Ach, where is my head?" The Eisen's head bobbed apologetically as they all began to move forward. "Kurt Mannheim. I am Baron Von Gunther's personal secretary. And he wishes to apologize that he could not personally be here to greet you himself, but, alas, he is currently playing mediator for a couple of our guests right now." At that, Mannheim winced. "Father Sigurd Carlsson from the High Objectionist Church in Kirk and Brother Tedmund from St. Gregor's Abbey in Gottkirchen. Their talks have been spirited to say the least. Here two weeks and already it seems like two years!" He shook his head, grinning again and waving a hand towards the stone keep towering ahead of them. "But you will meet them soon enough, I'm afraid."

Trying to hold back a look of disgust (and failing) at the mention of a Vendel being on the isle, Ulf glanced over towards where Mannheim was gesturing to. The Vesten's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as his keen sight made out a man-shaped brownish blob dashing and darting its way towards the keep.

"Herr Mannheim, what is that?"

"Hmm...a boar perhaps? The Baron's grandfather loved roast pork and stocked the isle with wild boars. They took to the isle quite well. Oh!" The Eisen squinted, then shook his head in amusement. "Oh, now I see. Yes, yes...our last guest."

Fortunato craned his head, trying to get a better look. "Another churchman then?"

"Scholar, actually," Mannheim chewed his bottom lip. "A botanist from Avalon on sabbatical."

"Oh?" Grace perked up, interest clear on her face.

"Yes...Doctor Foreman. David Foreman. You'll be meeting him too. That is, if he knows enough to get out of the rain." Chuckling, Mannheim clapped his hands. "Ach, this rain will be the death of me! We will get you inside. A glass of brandy and a late lunch will do us all good! And then the Baron can show you what was found!"

***

As they made their way towards the keep, Mannheim told them about the history of the isle. "Back in the day, when this was still a prison, no one ever dared to escape from here." Mannheim said with some pride. "The keep is impenetrable. Of course, even if a prisoner actually managed to succeed in breaking out, he never could have gotten far. The ice-cold waters surrounding the isle are swarming with both sirens and sharks. Swimming would have been impossible! Only the ferry knows the safest route to here and it only comes every three days. Just like it did when the first Von Gunthers lived here."

"The Baron has no boats of his own here then?" Fortunato sounded surprised. "What if there's an emergency?"

"The Von Gunthers always prided themselves on being self-sufficient. They took care of matters on their own and kept to themselves as much as possible. It worked out well, all things considered. Those who were exiled here lived in relative comfort." Mannheim chuckled. "The Baron has kept up those standards today. Ah! We are here now!"

The bald servant was already ahead of them, making sure the door to the keep was wide open. Before the trio could protest, he had deftly collected their luggage and headed upstairs. Smiling, Mannheim began to usher them down towards the hall.

"Everything all right, Grace?" Ulf whispered. He noticed the Highlander hesitate by the door, a puzzled look on her face.

"Thumb's actin' up..." Grace held up her left hand, wiggling her thumb as she did. "It's faint, but it's been like that ever since we set foot on shore here."

"Sorcery." The big Vesten grimaced at the news. Grace's ability to detect sorcery was one of the talents of being a Glamour mage. "Is it from the artifact, do you think?"

Grace shook her head. "Can't tell yet. Something to keep an eye out for anyway." She flashed Ulf a quick grin. "Shall we?"

Grace and Ulf managed to catch up to Fortunato just as he and Mannheim reached the entrance to the sitting room. "You have the gall to claim that Leiber sold indulgences?! What sort of IDIOTIC--" A heavy-set man in a black cassock stopped in mid-rant, suddenly aware of the newcomers. Across the table, a blond bearded man dressed in coarse brown robes eyed them coolly.

"Lady Grace?" A third man, this one tall with curly grey hair, immediately rose from his chair, the gratitude clear on his face for their arrival. He smiled broadly as he made his way over to the Highlander. "I am Baron Adelbert Von Gunther."

"An honour an' a privilege, Baron Adelbert," Grace returned the Baron's smile with one of her own. "Your donations to the Society have been quite generous."

"Explorers...." The blond bearded man snorted dismissively. "Nothing but trouble, mark my words!"

"Oh hush, Tedmund. You said the same thing about Cook's air pump!" The heavy-set man rolled his eyes, then looked over towards Ulf and Fortunato with interest.

"May I introduce Brother Tedmund and Father Sigurd?" The Baron said with an apologetic smile. "And your colleagues are?"

"Fortunato Valeri and Ulf Pedersen." Grace gestured for her two friends to come forward.

"As Lady MacKenzie says, it truly is an honour and a privilege to meet you, Baron," Fortunato said. He bowed, smoothly nudging the Vesten in the ribs to follow suit as he did so. Ulf managed to hold back the cough, but couldn't quite hold back the glare he gave the Vodacce in time before his own bow was completed.

"Indeed, Baron," Ulf sighed and nodded. "We--"

"I say, have they arrived yet? Actual Explorers...it's rather exciting! I mean--" A tall, thin man with an Avalon accent appeared in the doorway, his brown hair still damp from the rain. He paused, eyes widening as if in surprise when he saw Grace. An embarrassed chuckle escaped the man as he glanced down at his mud-spattered trousers and boots. "Oh, hello! I'm afraid I'm a bit of a mess right now..."

"Oh!" For a brief moment, Grace found herself staring at the newcomer, unable to think of anything to say. A faint smile crossed the young woman's face as Ulf and Fortunato shared a somewhat concerned look.

"Ah, Doctor Foreman...good of you to come down!" Baron Adelbert grinned, then gave his secretary a nod. "Excellent, we are all here. Now we can have lunch!"

Chapter Text

Both Ulf and Fortunato found the Baron to be a most agreeable host. He seemed genuinely impressed when he found out what Swordsman school Fortunato had studied ("Durchsetzungburg? Marvelous! It is so good to see another soul apply scholarly knowledge to the way of the blade."). Likewise, Baron Adelbert was equally enthusiastic when he found out Ulf was a hunter ("In my youth, I often visited the lands up north. Indeed, it says something about the spirit of the Vestenmannavnjar for them to thrive there!"). Both men were quite impressed as well with the rich spread that was served for lunch: wild boar roasted with mustard, red cabbage braised in wine, cucumbers pickled in dill and garlic, and new potatoes fried in boar fat.

Less impressive, however, was who chose to be their respective luncheon companions. Much to his dismay, Fortunato found himself in the sights of Brother Tedmund. The Eisen monk narrowed his eyes knowingly, looking the Vodacce Swordsman over as if he was measuring him against something.

"Have you been traveling with the Lady and the Vesten for very long, Signore Valeri?"

"Long enough, Brother Tedmund," Fortunato answered carefully.

"A heretic and a pagan. Actively seeking Legion's playthings...," A tight, mirthless smile formed on Brother Tedmund's face. "Aren't you concerned about the sanctity of your soul at all, Signore Valeri?"

Meanwhile, with near-enthusiastic glee Father Sigurd had managed to corner Ulf, willfully oblivious to the ugly scowl the burly hunter was giving him.

"My brother, this is WONDERFUL! A fellow Vendel in here of all places! Truly, Theus works wonders with even the smallest of miracles!"

"Vendel?!" Ulf sputtered in shock and anger.

"We are all brothers of Vendel -- and children of Theus too!" An oily grin spread across Father Sigurd's face as he winked at Ulf. "Though, some of us are just taking longer to return to His embrace."

Out of the corner of his vision, Fortunato could see the Vesten's fists clench tightly by his sides and the veins suddenly throbbing in his neck. "...diplomacy...!" The Vodacce hurriedly hissed.

"What was that, Signore Valeri?" Brother Tedmund arched an eyebrow.

"I said, 'Oh, I see...'." Fortunato shrugged. "Shame about the weather we're having, isn't it?"

Father Sigurd raised his glass of brandy to his lips, still intentionally blind to the Vesten's mood. "I just have concern for you, my brother," He began quietly, giving Ulf a condescendingly sympathetic shake of the head. "I respect what the Explorers' Society does -- unlike more close-minded sorts." The Vendel smirked as his eyes drifted towards Brother Tedmund, then back to Ulf. "But dwelling on past history is an idle pursuit at best. Instead, we should be focused more on future progress -- together as one people! Let's be honest, traveling with a Vodacce can't be healthy. Too many lies and intrigue with those people. Surely, even one like yourself can see that...."

"Vodacce causes many headaches," Ulf's eyes narrowed darkly. He then not-so-subtly cracked his knuckles. "But at least Vodacce knows when to shut up."

"You shouldn't be so flippant about the matters of one's soul," the monk glared at the Swordsman. "All Vaticines -- even the Vodacce -- have a moral imperative to destroy Legion and His minions. You risk your very existence exposing yourself to the ignorance of the Explorers!"

"I assure you, Brother Tedmund, in my time with the Explorers, many things have imperiled my life. Yes, even my very soul! But with Grace and Ulf, I couldn't ask for better people to watch my back. Legion Himself would have His hands full with those two," Fortunato grinned, adding. "You haven't seen how much they drink."

"May I refresh your glass, Lady MacKenzie?" By the far end of the room, Doctor Foreman had approached Grace.

"Hmm?" Grace looked up, a bit startled. "Oh, uh, no. No thank you, Doctor Foreman." She blinked, catching herself staring at the Avalon again, this time at his brown eyes. "I'm sorry, this is goin' to sound odd, but have we met before? I swear, you look familiar."

"Actually...," the doctor flashed her a lopsided grin, looking rather boyish. "...I was at your lecture in Cardican a few months ago. 'The Island of the Blue Men'? Absolutely fascinating!"

"You were at my lecture?" Grace's grey eyes went wide as her face lit up with pleasant surprise.

"Oh yes! A disappearing island in the northern part of the Trade Sea populated by a primitive culture that appears to have no relation or ties to the Vesten?" Foreman's eyes were bright with curiosity. "Lady MacKenzie, what else could it be but fascinating?"

"Please," A faint blush touched the Highlander's cheeks. "call me Grace."

"Only if you call me David," As David grinned at her, Grace felt herself growing warmer. "I've heard of similar tales of vanishing islands out in the Mirror. Do you think there might be--?"

A large shadow suddenly loomed over the two of them. "Grace...," it grumbled.

"Ulf?" Grace turned her head towards the stern-faced Vesten, trying her best to not look annoyed at the interruption. "David, this is Ulf Pedersen. You were askin' more about the Island? He was actually part o' Professor McCoy's expedition."

"Well met, Mister Pedersen," With a small smile, the doctor extended his hand to Ulf. His eyes widened in pain a second after Ulf took the offered hand. "Ah! That's ah-- that's quite a grip you have there."

"You were outside earlier." A statement, not a question.

"Er, yes," Foreman rubbed his hand a little as his brown eyes darted briefly to the Vesten. "Part of my research."

"Research?" Now it was Grace's turn to look curious. "What on?"

"Well, on what gives this isle its namesake, actually," began the doctor, a small smile now back on his face. "The fruits of both the hawthorn and blackthorn have medicinal properties. I'm looking to compare the fruits from here with samples from Avalon. See if cross-breeding might be worthwhile."

"Mannheim said you were here on sabbatical." Ulf peered at the Avalon intently.

"More of a working vacation, really...," Foreman shrugged. "What can I say? Even when I'm away, I've got to keep busy." David gave Grace a wink, who giggled in response.

The Vesten bit back the urge to roll his eyes. "Seems like an out-of-the-way place just to study plants."

"Well, it's not just the medical applications," Again, Foreman shrugged. "I know a few individuals who are interested in the thorns' fruits for...distillation purposes. Gin and the like." An abashed smile popped up on his face as he glanced towards Grace. "I know it's not as grand as lost ruins or ancient relics or anything."

"Nonsense!" Baron Adelbert's voice boomed as he approached them, grinning broadly all the while. A couple steps behind him was Mannheim. "This...this is what I had hoped for after the War. Growth. Even from the smallest things, such possibilities!" He leaned in conspiratorially as his gaze drifted towards Brother Tedmund and Father Sigurd, now with Fortunato stuck in the middle of their latest argument. "I envy your treks outside, Doctor. I think you're making more progress than I am."

"I do what I can, Baron," nodded Doctor Foreman. "But none of this would be possible without enlightened men such as yourself. You have a lot to be proud of."

Mannheim just shook his head, looking stern. "I still insist you're risking your life outside, Doctor Foreman!"

"What, because of the weather? Herr Mannheim, with all due respect, it's been raining since we all got here and it's going to take more than a little rain to kill me. Well, unless I get on the bad side of a Skjaeren...." The doctor flashed a quick grin, but it faded fast when he caught sight of Ulf narrowing his eyes.

Grace's brow creased into a concerned frown. "Is there something wrong then, Herr Mannheim?"

"That's just it. We're not sure, Lady MacKenzie," Mannheim sighed. He glanced over to the Baron, who only nodded. "I think it's time you had a look at what was found."

Chapter Text

A crash of thunder, heard even through the stone walls of the keep, punctuated everyone's arrival to the library.

"Lovely," muttered Fortunato. "Sounds like it's turning into a real storm out there."

"No worse than your snoring, Vodacce," muttered Ulf in return.

Lady Grace sighed, the verbal sniping between Ulf and Fortunato an all too-familiar occurance. David offered her a sympathetic smile. "Are they always like this, I take it?"

"You have no idea," Grace bit back a chuckle. She lowered her voice. "Did you get a look at what was found, David?"

The doctor shook his head as a flicker of seriousness crossed his eyes. "Not yet. The Baron had it put under lock and key after Mannheim brought whatever it is inside." He paused, brown eyes now bright with anticipation. "We'll both be seeing it for the first time."

Father Sigurd made a beeline straight for the brandy snifter. He poured himself a glass, drained it in one swallow, then quickly poured himself another. "We finally get to see what all the fuss is about," the Vendel priest smirked. "Even you have to be curious about it, eh Tedmund?"

The Eisen monk only glared coldly at his Objectionist counterpart. "Any tool of the Abyss should have been tossed into the flames the moment it dared to see the light of day!"

"With all due respect, Brother Tedmund, that isn't always such a good idea. Some artifacts react rather badly to fire." The hint of a grin popped up on Fortunato's face. "Ulf, do you remember the incident with the fire mage?"

"Which one, Vodacce?"

"The one with the hook. I think it was in Tamis...remember Tamis?"

"Ohhh, that one!" Ulf nodded, making a face. "Do you think her hair ever grew back?"

Brother Tedmund's eyes widened in shock and abhorrence at the two men. He quickly made the sign of the Prophets' Cross. "Typical Explorers' prattling," he spat, jabbing a finger towards Fortunato's way. "You disregard Theus' warnings at your own peril. It's bad enough one life has been lost already!"

Ulf, Fortunato, and Grace's heads suddenly shot towards Brother Tedmund, who only smiled in return, disturbingly pleased to be the bearer of such news. Father Sigurd stared at his empty glass in awkward silence while Doctor Foreman just gave the monk a grimace. "Baron Adelbert, you made no mention o' anyone dyin' in your letter to the Society," Lady Grace frowned, her gaze turning now towards the uneasy Baron.

However, it was Mannheim who spoke first. "Because this thing didn't cause the death in question, Lady MacKenzie." The Baron's secretary wrung his hands slightly before continuing, his expression one of concern. "One of the servants...he was out hunting boar. He didn't get a clean shot off and..."

"...it only enraged the animal?" Ulf finished, grimacing in realization.

Mannheim just nodded. "I came across the scene and finished the boar off myself, but it was too late for Hans. The boar must have torn up the ground around it in its pain and uprooted the relic." He went over to the corner to pull out a small chest, placed it on the center table, then unlatched it. "I told the Baron what had happened. Apart from myself bringing this inside, no one has touched it."

Grace was already putting on a pair of heavy leather gloves as she approached the chest. She lifted the lid, then reached in and carefully drew the object out.

It was ashen-white, approximately the size of a man's head. Four thick shells hinged together at the bottom, as if to form some sort of sphere once it was closed. The entire object was covered in sharp, narrow spikes each about four inches long. All eyes were focused on the Highlander and the relic. After a minute or so, one voice broke the silence.

"That's all that it is?" Father Sigurd gave a disappointed snort. "I was expecting something more...complex. With springs and dials and humming and sparks. Or at least made out of gold!" Lady Grace only ignored him, frowning thoughtfully. "Are you..." Ulf wiggled his hand, making sure the thumb was sticking out. "...finding anything, Grace?"

Grace shook her head, taking off her gloves finally. "Fortunato, come over here an' tell me what you make o' this."

The Vodacce came over. He reached out and tentatively tapped the inside of one of the shells with a finger. "What is that? It's hard, whatever it is. Bone maybe? Pardon me, Doctor, you're in my light." Fortunato nudged past the Avalon as he tried to get a better look. "Those spikes don't look healthy, Grace. Some sort of trap already set off? Or a Syrneth torture device."

"It's hollow. Might have held something once...," Grace cocked her head, looking over the relic carefully. "You found it like this, Herr Mannheim?"

"Ja, Lady MacKenzie. Partially uncovered in the dirt," Mannheim's head bobbed quickly. "Once the storm stops, I can, of course, show you where. Do you have any idea what it is then?"

"Not sure yet," Pausing, Grace spied David giving her an encouraging smile and looking at her intently. Not for the first time since arriving did Grace find herself returning the doctor's smile warmly with one of her own. "Ruminatin' on a few possibilities though."

"The library is yours to use as long as you have need of it, Lady Grace. It's never locked...both Doctor Foreman and Father Sigurd can attest to that. I've spent more than a few nights in deep discussion with them both here," Baron Adelbert nodded towards the doctor and the priest. "And if there's anything that I or my staff can assist with, please do not hesitate to ask."

"Thank you, Baron Adelbert," The Highlander's smile quirked into a small grin as she pushed her sleeves up. Her gaze hesitated briefly on David before nodding to Fortunato, then to Ulf. "Time for us to get to work...."

Chapter Text

"It's amazing, Grace. Absolutely amazing," Fortunato nodded, obviously impressed. "We've been here for nearly four hours and Ulf hasn't strangled the Vendel yet! Perhaps there's hope for diplomacy after all."

Grace looked up from her work. Already she had filled several parchments with notations and rough sketches of the relic. She glanced towards the door of the library where the large Vesten had planted himself on the other side as guard duty.

"I guess Sigurd lost interest once he saw the relic couldn't be melted down for gold," Fortunato continued, a playful smirk now on his face. "Typical Vendel. If it's not shiny, it's not worth anything to him. I suppose he's gone back to arguing with Tedmund about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin and whether they'll be dancing the waltz or the jig at Doomsday."

"Mmm...well, so long as they keep their noise to a dull roar out there an' away from me. I don't need any distractin' right now..." Grace turned back to the artifact.

"Like Avalon doctors?" Fortunato asked innocently.

Grace's head snapped right back up to see the Vodacce now grinning from ear to ear. The Highlander's cheeks suddenly flushed bright red. "Theus, is it that obvious?" she managed to croak.

"Yes," deadpanned Fortunato. At Grace's look of mortification, the Vodacce chuckled sympathetically. "Grace, we're your friends, not your chaperones. Though I'm sure Ulf would be willing to tear the man's arms off if he gets out of line. That is, if you haven't killed him yourself first."

"I--!" An indignant Grace tried to stammer out a protest.

"Grace, easy! I kid...honest!" Fortunato raised a hand. "If it helps any, I do believe the doctor might show a similar interest in you as well. Of course, you are the only woman on this isle, so it can't be that har--OW!" Fortunato pulled back his arm from Grace's smack. "Honestly, Grace, I'm half-surprised you didn't invite Foreman in here to examine the artifact with us!"

"I'd like the chance to get to know David a little bit better, yes," While the bright blush had faded, Grace's cheeks were still a touch pink. She smiled weakly, straightening herself up. "But he's not an Explorer. I've got a responsibility to make sure that relic is safe an' harmless before I start lettin' anyone else poke at it. Mannheim got lucky bringin' this inside. I need to be absolutely sure that this thing is, if not safe, then at least inert for now!"

"Agreed. And I'm relieved to hear you say that, Grace," The Vodacce nodded. "I still don't like those spikes. If this did once hold something, you don't think that's what actually set the boar off instead, do you? It cracked it open while wounded and--" Fortunato suddenly grimaced. "Theus, if that's the case, I hope no one ate it!"

"Och, what a thought," Grace looked up, listening for a few moments as the storm poured down. Her eyes narrowed grimly. "Theus only knows how much evidence the rain's already washed away since this was unearthed. Between them an' the boars..." She shook her head. "I hope it lightens up enough soon."

"Do you have an idea what this is then, Grace?"

"Well, I can tell you what it's not. It's not Setine. It's not Domae." Grace carefully tapped the smooth inside of one of the hard shells, then jotted down another note. "Not Tesseran. Drachen maybe?" She looked up, checking her thumb. "Dammit, I still can't tell if there's any magic lingerin' in it! But there's definitely something on this isle...."

"I've got it...it's petrified Drachenscheisse!" Fortunato grinned. "There's the topic of your next lecture, Grace: 'Drachenscheisse, Doorknobs and Other Syrneth Duds'!"

"You're incorrigible, you Vodacce bastard," Grace bit back a chuckle. She paused, her grey eyes now touched with uncertainty. "About David -- Doctor Foreman -- do you really think he might be...?"

"We Vodacce have a certain sense about amore," Fortunato smiled reassuringly. "But I'll tell you what. I'll make sure Ulf is distracted by something shiny in the meantime so you can carry on such investigations in private. Do you think Father Sigurd's head will be shiny enough?"

****

"She seems quite taken with him...," Fortunato said idly, pausing to pop a piece of ham into his mouth. A much-needed dinner break had come around and the Vodacce wanted to take full advantage of the time to get away from the library and refill his stomach.

Ulf only grunted in response, his stony gaze never leaving the far side of the parlor. There, Lady Grace and Doctor Foreman stood, fully engaged in animated conversation. The Avalon leaned towards Grace, both smiling warmly. Whatever anecdote he was regaling her with elicited a merry laugh from the Highlander.

"Ulf," A sly look crossed Fortunato's face. "You're not jealous of Foreman by any chance, are you?"

"I do not trust him," the Vesten grunted again.

"Really," said Fortunato drily. "Between the Eisen who I swear has aspirations of becoming an Inquisitor, the self-righteous Vendel and me, it's the Avalon doctor you end up disliking!"

"You are not listening, Vodacce," Ulf shot Fortunato a dark look. "The Vendel and the Eisen? Them, I do not like. And you? You are merely annoying--"

"Thank you for thinking so highly of me."

"--but the Avalon, I do not trust. He is trying too hard to be dull."

"Scheming. Intrigue. Suspicion," Fortunato grinned and slapped Ulf on the back. "My friend, we'll have you thinking like a Vodacce yet!"

The Vesten rolled his eyes. "Please do not insult me like that."

"Ulf, in our line of work, I can appreciate a healthy level of suspicion as well as anyone," Fortunato sighed, shaking his head a little. "But not everyone is a bloodthirsty pirate or a meglomaniac looking to take over the world. Sometimes, they're just ordinary, dull people. Skinny, nervous beanpoles who just happen to like looking at Highlander women and don't know how to be subtle about it."

"Hmmph," Ulf grunted, the third time in as many minutes.

"Just think of Foreman as a ferret looking at something shiny. Our visit has given him some much needed shininess and excitement in his boring life. We're performing him a favor here if you really think about it!"

"Ferrets are hunters, Vodacce."

Fortunato opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, then stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see Grace, now talking with Baron Adelbert and Mannheim. Tedmund and Sigurd were in the middle of yet another heated debate, oblivious to the rest of the room.

But Foreman was no longer in the parlor.

"On second thought," The Vodacce's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "perhaps we should get to know the good doctor a little bit better. Shall we go find him?"

Ulf just grinned evilly and cracked his knuckles.

****

Ulf and Fortunato carefully approached the ajar door of the library. From their position, they could see the Avalon standing by the table where the relic laid. With his hand wrapped in cloth, Foreman gingerly reached out towards one of the spikes. The Vodacce shot a look towards the doctor, then back to the Vesten. Both men nodded curtly, then Ulf pushed open the door wider and they took a step inside.

"Is everything all right, Doctor Foreman?" Fortunato's voice rang out clearly, a smile of innocence plastered wide across his face. Behind him, Ulf stood glaring silently, his arms folded across his chest. The Avalon immediately took a step back, pulling his hand away.

"I'm sorry," The doctor stammered, clearly chagrined. "I was just hoping for a closer look. I didn't mean to disturb anything!"

"I was always taught that you should look with your eyes and not your hands, Doctor." Fortunato strided further into the library, eying the man up and down. He flashed a small grin. "You really shouldn't touch that."

"Again, I apologize. I saw the door was open and curiosity overcame me...," Foreman crouched down, now eye level with the table. His gaze was focused back on the relic and not on Ulf and Fortunato. "Is it dangerous then? Has Lady Grace figured out anything about it yet?"

The Vodacce stiffened slightly, grin fading at the doctor's implication that Grace was the only one with ideas. "We have a few theories, yes. But nothing that can be revealed at this time. I'm sure you understand, of course...," Fortunato paused, frowning thoughtfully. "So, what brings you wandering past the hall then, Doctor Foreman?"

"Well, Grace -- her Ladyship -- and I were discussing my research. She had asked to see some of the samples I had acquired, so I was on my way to my room to fetch them," Foreman pulled himself up, looking over the Vodacce carefully before turning to meet the Vesten's eyes, his even stare unflinching in the face of Ulf's dark scowl. "I certainly didn't mean to cause any trouble here."

"Mmm, yes," Fortunato said quickly as he spied Ulf suddenly tensing a little. "Your research. Ulf was telling me a little bit about it. Something about thorns, yes?" He didn't wait for the doctor to respond. "Eisen's a big country...why here of all places?"

"As you say, Signore Valeri, Eisen is a big country -- and unfortunately, there are parts of it that are still unstable. Unsafe. You never know when one petty duke or town constable is just as bad or worse than the bandits and kobolds plaguing the wilderness. Baron Von Gunther's diplomatic efforts and openness towards scientific endeavours gave me an opportunity to pursue my research in relative peace here. At least, that's what I had hoped...," Foreman's voice trailed off as his expression grew solemn.

"With Tedmund and Sigurd shouting around, I can see why you'd rather spend more time with the mud and boars," Shrugging, a small smirk popped up on Fortunato's face. "Not my idea of a healthy pursuit, but to each his own."

"You do not fear the boars?" Ulf finally spoke up. "What do you have to protect yourself?"

"I have a sword, though I don't like to carry it if I can help it," The doctor seemed to weigh his words deliberately, as if uncomfortable about what to reveal. "I prefer to see signs of boars and then go in the opposite direction. That is, if there's an actual threat around."

"A man is dead by those boars," The Vesten looked at him in disbelief. "You think looking at plants is really that important to take such a chance with your life?"

"Mister Pedersen, no one saw Hans' body apart from Mannheim and another servant. The Baron accepted Mannheim's story without question.. And our illustrious churchmen couldn't be bothered to stop their arguing for a while even for prayers," The doctor said with some bitterness. He shook his head, continuing. "I offered my services to tend to the body, but I was declined."

"You have reason to doubt Herr Mannheim's account?" Fortunato asked, his brow creasing with uneasiness.

"All I'm saying," said Foreman quietly. "is I can't be asked to be afraid when I don't have any evidence of what it is I'm supposed to be frightened of in the first place." The Avalon's gaze drifted back towards the artifact. "I mean--"

"David? Is everything allri--?" All three men turned to face Lady Grace, now standing in the doorframe of the library. She did a double-take, looking over at the doctor, then over to Ulf and Fortunato. "Just what do you think you're doin'?" Grace shot an accusing glare at Fortunato.

"My fault, Lady Grace," Foreman began before the Vodacce could speak. "I got curious and your colleagues here were rightfully admonishing me that I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be." He flashed Grace a sheepish grin and the harsh look in her eyes softened. "I hope you're not cross with me. Or with them."

"Well, I can see how temptin' it can be to sneak a peek into someone's else's business...," The Highlander hesitated, her eyes briefly narrowing again towards the Vodacce and Vesten before turning back to Foreman. The corners of her mouth twitched into a soft smile. "...but I'm sure no harm was meant. I'll forgive you. That is, providin' tomorrow mornin' you get around to showin' me your samples at breakfast, Doctor Foreman."

"Done!" The Avalon's grin broadened with enthusiasm. Ulf rolled his eyes and Fortunato squirmed. If Grace took any notice of them, she made no sign.

"I should probably put that back in the chest," Grace went over to the relic on the table and put on the gloves again. "Can't be too careful. Theus knows I'm probably not goin' to get any more work done on it this night. Baron Adelbert offered to tell me more about his family's history on the isle. Maybe there's a lead there. Would you care to join me, Doctor?"

Foreman said not a word, instead following dutifully after Lady Grace back to the parlor with a smile still on his face. Fortunato waited for a few moments, then peeked into the hall to make sure they were out of earshot. "Oh, he's slick, that one. 'My fault! But your colleagues were just doing their job! Don't be mad!' And then come the puppy dog eyes..." Fortunato muttered. "The man's smoother than a Montaigne's ass."

"I do not want to know how you know so much about Montaigne asses, Vodacce," Ulf frowned. "What do you make of the doctor's story?"

"About the dead servant? I don't know. It's certainly odd, if it's true. Or maybe Mannheim just didn't want him treating a man's death as another sample to harvest," The Vodacce shook his head, then looked pointedly at Ulf. "But I do know this. Before we left for dinner the door to this library was closed."

****

Eventually, both guests and staff retired for the night, the storm still showing no sign of letting up. Up in his room, Father Sigurd opened up a hollowed-out Book of the Prophets and lovingly caressed a small silver flask.

***

In his room, finally finished with his meditations, Brother Tedmund rose from a kneeling position and went over to the wardrobe. He opened it a crack, just enough to see the glint of crimson in the candlelight. He smiled coldly before shutting the wardrobe tight, then blew out his candle.

***

Sitting on his bed, Doctor Foreman stared at a leather-bound journal, brown eyes deep in contemplation and concern. After some time, he sighed, opening the journal and pushing aside the wine-dark swatch of oddly-stiffened red ribbon used as a bookmark. He settled on a blank page, took up his quill and began to write: T AGR KLGYQ GKGTO GPSQL GNN SDTA STEQ...

***

And at midnight the Baron went down to the library. He smiled at the chest where the relic was held, then went over to the snifter to pour himself a glass of brandy. Taking a sip, he went over to the shelf to fetch a book on the history of Carleman for some light reading.

Two minutes later, Baron Adelbert Von Gunther was dead.

Chapter Text

"AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!" The scream echoing through the halls of the keep in the early morning was filled with utter horror. Clad only in a pair of breeches, Fortunato raced down the stairs, sword at the ready. Following closely behind him was Ulf. His hunting knife "Rabbitslayer" drawn, the burly Vesten hadn't bothered to change his clothes from yesterday.

Lady Grace rushed out of her room, one hand clutching her still-sheathed claymore. She nearly collided with Brother Tedmund in the hall. "Lady MacKenzie, a little decorum, please!" The Eisen recoiled, looking aghast at Grace's woolen nightgown.

"Brother Tedmund, with all due respect, put a sock in it!" Grace rolled her eyes, continuing her race down the stairs.

The entrance of the library was crowded. Pushing her way through, Grace settled in between Ulf and Fortunato. Mannheim stood off to the side, his dressing gown wrapped tightly around him and his face ashen with shock. Crouched down and fully clothed was Doctor Foreman, intently examining the body of Baron Adelbert. Nearby laid a book and a broken glass.

"Theus!" Brother Tedmund gasped. He quickly made the sign of the Prophets.

"Th-the Baron!" Mannheim stammered. "I found him like this. He is not breathing!"

"The body's stiff," Foreman murmured, looking up at everyone. "He's been dead for a few hours."

"Theus, no...," Grace breathed. Ulf and Fortunato lowered their weapons, both men still on alert.

"What's all this noise?" Father Sigurd finally arrived, biting back a yawn. "What's going o--" He froze, eyes widening as he saw the dead man. "Baron Adelbert?! What...what happened?!"

"The Baron's dead," Brother Tedmund shook his head, glaring. "That cursed artifact...did I not warn you about its evil?! Now another poor soul has been dragged down to Legion because of it!"

"The artifact!" Grace quickly went over to the small chest and opened it. The relic still laid there silently, seemingly undisturbed.

Sigurd let out a small snort. "Don't be ridiculous, Tedmund. The Baron was an old man. It's a tragic situation, yes. But it's not due to any sinister machinations!"

"I wouldn't be so sure of that just yet, Father Sigurd," The doctor said quietly. He turned the corpse's head towards everyone. Baron Adelbert's face was bright pink even in death. Foreman's nose wrinkled slightly. "Do any of you smell that?"

Mannheim, Tedmund, and Sigurd all shook their heads in the negative. But Grace, Ulf and Fortunato all nodded. "Like almonds almost, but odd," said Fortunato.

"Yes," Ulf frowned. "Burnt almonds."

"Exactly," said Foreman, pulling himself up from the floor. He strode over to where the broken glass was, wrapped his hand in linen and carefully picked up a shard. The doctor sniffed it, a troubled frown growing on his face as he then approached the brandy snifter. Another quick sniff of the bottle had the Avalon grimacing.

"Poison."

Gasps of disbelief and shock greeted the doctor's declaration. In the span of seconds everyone now eyed each other with suspicion. "You're saying it's murder?!" Father Sigurd immediately looked over at Grace, Ulf and Fortunato. "We've all been fine since arriving here," he gestured towards David and Tedmund. "But you Explorers show up and now the Baron is suddenly dead!"

Ulf growled. Fortunato's eyes narrowed sharply. "Just what exactly are you implying, Father Sigurd?"

"Aye," Lady Grace's grip on her sheathed claymore tensed. "We've just met the man...what reason would we have for killin' him?! He's always been generous to the Society!"

"Maybe he wasn't going to be generous to the Explorers anymore," muttered Brother Tedmund coldly.

"Brother Tedmund...Father Sigurd, please!" Doctor Foreman stepped forward. "Let's be sensible about this. Wild accusations aren't going to do any of us any good! Herr Mannheim," he turned towards the Baron's secretary. "Did Baron Von Gunther have any enemies? Any problems or suspicious incidents recently?"

"Well...," Mannheim shifted uncomfortably, his gaze darting towards the Eisen monk.

"Oho!" Sigurd nodded eagerly. "He practically accused the Baron of treason! I heard it...everyone in the damn keep heard it!" The Vendel glanced over in David's direction. "Well, almost everyone. You were out picking flowers or whatever it was you were doing outside."

"How DARE you?!" The monk spat. "You're twisting my words, Sigurd! Let's not forget how Baron Adelbert turned you down when you asked him for donations. Maybe he knew his guilders wouldn't end up in your church's coffers after all?"

"You sanctimonious SWINE!" The Vendel's face purpled with rage. "I ought to--"

"Gentlemen, please!" Foreman moved to interpose himself between the two quarreling churchmen.

"You were in the library, Doctor Foreman," Ulf suddenly said. "Last night, during dinner. You were in here."

"So were you, Mister Pedersen," The doctor turned towards Ulf, his expression tense. "So were Lady MacKenzie and Signore Valeri. That doesn't mean--"

"Really," Tedmund's eyes narrowed, looking over the Avalon now with acute interest. "As a doctor, you would be quite knowledgeable about poisons, wouldn't you? Likewise, it's certainly a clever way to throw suspicion off yourself if you're the one making the diagnosis. And already dressed this morning too...." The Eisen's voice trailed off as his face twisted into a tight, unpleasant smile.

"He's dressed," said Foreman, indicating Ulf.

"Yes, but he's an uncouth savage who constantly keeps the same clothes on his back," Fortunato said, his tone light in spite of matters. "What's your excuse?"

"I'm an early riser," David met the swordsman's eyes with a cold stare.

"That's a very flimsy thing to be basin' a suspicion on, Fortunato," Grace quickly said, shooting a dark glare towards the Vodacce.

"Indeed," nodded Father Sigurd. "What motive would the doctor have?"

"Thank you, Lady Grace, Father Sigurd," David began, the tension easing from his body just a hair. "We need--"

"Besides," continued the Vendel, a shrewd glint now in his eyes. "the Vodacce are also well-known for their proficiency in poisons. One might say 'infamous' even! Maybe Mister Valeri has a secret employer outside of the Explorers?"

"Where I come from, slander like that deserves only one response, Vendel...," There was steel in Fortunato's voice. "Priest or not, I--"

"ENOUGH!" Grace roared. She looked over at all of them, then shook her head in disgust. "A good man is dead. If you have to argue, then take it outside!" Her grey eyes blazed with anger and frustration. She drew in a deep breath to steady herself. "Herr Mannheim, as I understand it, Baron Adelbert was the last o' his line. Who benefits from his death if he has no family?"

"It wouldn't be the first time a servant tried to better himself at the expense of his master's passing," muttered Father Sigurd.

Mannheim bristled at the accusation. "I have served the Baron faithfully for eight years. His will is with solicitors back in Insel. And even if by some small chance he actually named me as any sort of heir, the Eisenfaust herself could easily disregard his last wishes and appoint whoever she wanted if she chooses to continue this barony!"

"No bastard children hiding anywhere then?" asked Fortunato. "Lost siblings or distant cousins?"

"No!" Mannheim shook his head. "The Baron's first duty was to the Isle. Though, he always told me he deeply regretted never having time to start a family."

"Theus!" Sigurd suddenly sputtered, his eyes now wide in shock. "What if...what if Baron Adelbert wasn't the only target?! What if that--" he jabbed a fat finger towards the brandy snifter. "--was also meant for the Explorers? Or me?! The Baron said the library was open to anyone...he did!"

"What are you blathering on about, Sigurd?!" Brother Tedmund snapped in irritation.

"We've got to get off this damn isle! Do you know vital I am back in Kirk?! If anything was to happen to me--!" Sigurd's eyes bulged in panic as he paced wildly around the library. "I knew I should have insisted on bringing my bodyguards! But Adelbert swore they wouldn't be necessary. Now he's dead and we're trapped here with a murderer! How in the hell--?!"

*THUNK!*

Sigurd's jaw gaped in sheer terror as he suddenly found the sleeve of his robe pinned against the wall of the library by Ulf's knife.

"Shut up, Vendel. You are giving everyone here a headache." With a grunt, Ulf strode over and pulled Rabbitslayer out of the wall. "Especially me."

"H-he--!" Sigurd hiccuped. "He just tried to kill me! You all saw it!"

"If Ulf wanted you dead, then you'd be dead, Father Sigurd," Given the gravity of the situation, Fortunato tried his best to bite back a chuckle. He sighed. "So much for diplomacy."

"Did I draw blood, Vodacce? No." Ulf sheathed his knife. "His gibberish was not helping any of us right now."

"GIBBERISH?! I--!" Ulf's mouth curled into a silent snarl. Father Sigurd immediately fell silent, though his eyes darted towards both Foreman and Tedmund in a vain attempt for some assistance. The doctor found himself occupied scratching the back of his head while the monk only smirked. Mannheim coughed quietly.

"While I appreciate the idea o' not panickin', Father Sigurd brings up a valid point. Herr Mannheim, are you sure there are no boats on the Isle?" Grace's voice took on an authoritative tone. "Or can we signal Insel in any way? Signal fires, mirrors, Porte gate...carrier pigeons?"

"Nein, Lady MacKenzie. On all those things," Mannheim shook his head, wringing his hands a little. "It is all part of the Isle's reputation, you see. To be inescapable. And that meant the Von Gunthers could never show any sign that anything might have gone wrong to the public! But nothing ever did go wrong until now...."

"So that means we're stuck here for the next two days until the ferry returns," said David. He looked over towards Grace with concern.

A small whimper escaped the Vendel. Brother Tedmund snorted in disgust. Grace only nodded, meeting the doctor's eyes. "An' that means we've got two days to figure out who the killer is. Right..." She paused, forcing herself to turn away from the Avalon's watchful gaze. "...I suggest you all get dressed an' fed as quick as you can. Me an' my friends want to start questionin' everyone as soon as possible."

Ulf and Fortunato exchanged looks. The Vodacce nodded grimly as the Vesten slowly cast his eyes around the library, watching every man's reaction. "What?!" barked Sigurd. "Lady MacKenzie, what, by the Prophets, has gotten into you?! You can't just go around giving orders like this is one of your little digs!"

Grace stepped forward, locking a withering stare onto the now squirming priest. "Right now, there are only three people I trust on this isle -- Fortunato Valeri, Ulf Pedersen an' me. An' if you have ANY hope o' gettin' out o' here alive, Father, then you DAMN well better start trustin' us too!"

"You are neither my countryman nor my religious superior," From where he stood, Tedmund's eyes narrowed sharply at the Highlander. "You have no authority over me."

"But I am your countryman," said Mannheim. He grimaced. "I could very easily have you all confined to your rooms until the guards back in Insel are notified--"

"WHAT?!" Sigurd cried out in protest. Tedmund, however, never flinched. He only raised his chin higher. "Then do it."

"--but I don't want to do it!" Mannheim answered, frustration etched across his face. "Not if it can be helped." He turned towards the Avalon. "Doctor Foreman, are you absolutely certain it is murder?"

"Yes," David said. His steady eyes never left Grace. "I'd stake my life on it."

"Then please, I implore you, Brother Tedmund. And you as well, Father Sigurd. All of you cooperate with Lady MacKenzie and her men," said Mannheim, clearly trying to regain some semblance of order. "At least until the ferry returns and we can notify the proper authorities."

"Grace, any help I can give you, don't hesitate to ask," Foreman said, nodding. "Please."

Lady Grace tried to smile at David reassuringly, but it faded fast. "Thank you, Doctor, we'll let you know," said Fortunato quickly. He turned, giving the monk a calculating glance. "Brother Tedmund?"

"I have nothing to hide, " the Eisen sniffed dismissively. He folded his arms, ignoring Fortunato and continuing to glare at Grace. "Have your scavenger hunt if you must, Lady MacKenzie. If this is meant to distract us from you and your fellow Explorers' crimes, it will all be for naught. But if you actually are innocent, then stay out of my way after you're done with your questions," A faint trace of a sneer crossed Brother Tedmund's lips. "I intend to secure myself in my room until help -- real help -- arrives. If the rest of you have any intelligence, you'll do the same." He turned on his heel and exited the library without another look.

Father Sigurd just shook his head, mouth still slightly agape. He hurriedly made his way to the door of the library, cringing as he passed by Ulf. "Theus, protect me...Theus, protect me..." The Vendel swallowed, repeating the phrase over and over again as he left the room.

"I must tend to the Baron's body," Mannheim said sadly. "He does not deserve to be left lying in here like this."

"Let me help you," Foreman took a step towards him, but Mannheim waved him off.

"Thank you, but no, Doctor. This is our duty," Mannheim looked over to the door frame, where out in the hall were the bald-headed servant and two other servants, all looking worried. "Gabriel, please. Assist me with the Baron. Johann, Fritz...start making breakfast for everyone."

"But--" The doctor tried to protest, but Ulf began to usher him from the library. "Leave him, Doctor. Every man must grieve in his own way. Give him his space."

"Not to mention give us some space. And a chance to get dressed and breakfast," added Fortunato, following out with Grace. Shutting the library door, he gave David a small smile. "Not all of us are early risers."

The doctor opened his mouth to give a rebuttal, but stopped. Instead, he merely shrugged and left towards the stairs. "Was that really necessary?" hissed Grace after a few seconds.

"Yes." Ulf and Fortunato said together. The two men did a double-take at each other. Fortunato sighed, "Grace, you said it yourself. There's only three people on this isle I trust right now -- and I'm looking at the other two. Now, what are we going to do here?"

"Someone here wants us either dead or discredited. I'm not waitin' around to have either happen!" A grimace crossed the Highlander's face. "Baron Adelbert was a well-liked man. There was a lot o' hope for his mission here. Fauner Posen would have no trouble at all imprisonin' an' executin' everyone here regardless o' who the killer is."

"Eisen justice -- swift and brutal," muttered Ulf. He paused, "Does this mean we still have to be diplomatic?"

"Yes, Ulf, we still have to be diplomatic," Fortunato rolled his eyes. "As tempting and as satisfying as it would be just to thrash some of these people, that might make things difficult for us later on down the line. If either of them turn out to be innocent, I'm sure both the Objectionists and the Vaticines wouldn't be too happy if Father Sigurd and Brother Tedmund end up...damaged. We're on thin enough ice as it is!"

"I'm sure there are enough fanatics from either Church who'd be very eager to see all o' Baron Adelbert's progress for dialogue an' peace be destroyed," Grace shook her head. "We just treat this like an excavation. Look for clues to see what happened in the past. Only instead o' what happened hundreds o' years ago, we're lookin' for what happened these past couple o' weeks. We just need to be careful. Anyone could be the killer."

"Anyone?" Ulf asked quietly. His eyes drifted upwards. Grace and Fortunato followed his gaze. There, on the top of the steps, was Doctor Foreman.

Watching them.

The Avalon quickly turned and walked away. Grace's eyes lingered on where he stood for a few heartbeats, then she turned her head away. Her voice was barely a whisper. "...anyone...."

Chapter Text

To say breakfast was a tense affair was an understatement. In the dining room, Father Sigurd eyed both the platter of fruit and cheese and the urn of kaffee with suspicion. Ulf immediately grabbed a plum and bit into it, not caring about the dark juices dribbling out of the corners of his mouth. Fortunato grimaced at the Vesten's lack of decorum, then went over to Grace's side. Dressed now, the Highlander had traded out her nightgown for her digger's coat and trousers and had her blonde hair pinned back in a tight bun.

"Herr Mannheim said Brother Tedmund is waiting for us in the study. Apparently, he's impatient to get back to hiding in his room and resume praying for our eternal damnation." The Vodacce paused, adding. "I may be exaggerating on that last part."

"Doubt you are," Grace finished her cup of kaffee with a frown. "I'm worried that even if Tedmund has nothin' to do with Baron Adelbert's death, he'll still be less than cooperative. He could very easily be more harm than help."

"Hopefully his vows to the Vaticine Church will override his dislike of us and keep his moral compass honest. The fear of death can make the strangest allies out of anyone," nodded Fortunato.

"Is this why you keep following me then, Vodacce?" Ulf came over. He gave the room a quick glance and frowned. "I do not see the doctor in here."

"Early eater as well, do you think?" asked Fortunato, craning his head around.

"First you two ask him to give you space, now you want him back in it!" Grace snapped, shaking her head in disbelief.

"I just want to keep track of everyone," Ulf looked hurt. "Too many people, not enough eyes."

Grace set her empty cup down. "Well, we'll be speakin' with David soon enough." She paused, giving Ulf and Fortunato a cold smile. "An' I expect you two to treat him with the same amount o' diplomacy an' tact you're to give Brother Tedmund!" She turned and left the dining room.

Fortunato gave Ulf a worried look. "This is going to be a long day, Ulf."

"Agreed, Vodacce," muttered the Vesten.

***

"Will this take long, Lady MacKenzie?" Though he addressed Grace, Brother Tedmund's focus was on the Vodacce. The monk had taken the seat closest to the door of the study. Grace and Ulf had taken the far side of the room while Fortunato stood across from Tedmund.

"That depends on you, Brother Tedmund," Grace's jaw clenched, trying to keep her tone even.

A harsh chuckle escaped the Eisen. "It's not too late for you, you know. To renounce this wayward path--" Tedmund gave Fortunato a wan smile as his eyes darted towards the other two Explorers. "--and truly return to the Vaticine flock. Theus can forgive your indiscretions -- but even His window of opportunity could soon be shut."

"I'll be sure to keep that in mind, Brother Tedmund. Just as I'm sure Theus wants you to cooperate with us. Truly even." Fortunato gave an uncomfortable grin, then nodded to Grace.

"Let's start with the most obvious question," Grace's expression was stony. "Where were you after supper last night?"

"I was in a very fruitless conversation with Sigurd for about an hour in the parlor. A waisen offers more stimulating ideas than him," Tedmund's mouth curled into a slight smirk. "Then I retired to my room for meditation and reflection for the rest of the night. Eventually, I went to bed."

"Alone, I assume?" asked Grace.

"One is never truly alone with Theus," Brother Tedmund shrugged. "But if you mean was anyone else in the keep with me, then yes, I was alone."

"You do not think very much of the Vendel," Ulf didn't phrase it as a question.

Tedmund seemed amused. "Your countryman...," The Eisen's smirk only widened at Ulf's glare. "Your countryman is a buffoon. A disgrace to the priesthood, even by Objectionist standards. He is a drunk and only interested in serving himself, not the souls of his fellow men."

The Vodacce asked, "And you know this how exactly? You've met him before?"

"No, but the True Church has its own sources -- even in Kirk," The monk nodded, a hint of smugness in his voice. "Though he believes otherwise, Sigurd was sent here not to open up any sort of dialogue but to get out of his superiors' hair. He was involved with some now-vanished donations made by the Brewer's and Swordsman's Guilds that his superiors are currently investigating."

"You're very well-gossiped for a monk, Brother Tedmund," Grace arched her brow slightly.

"Not all of our calling shun the outside world, Lady MacKenzie," shrugged Tedmund again. "Knowledge is our greatest weapon against the lies of Legion."

"An' you accusin' Baron Adelbert o' treason would be another one o' those sort o' lies, I suppose," The Highlander folded her arms across her chest as Tedmund's smirk fell from his face. "Pardon me for sayin', but you don't seem very open to peaceful dialogue yourself. What exactly did you say to the Baron?"

"Eisen must remain ever-vigilant against heresy," The monk narrowed his eyes, grimacing. "I only sought to warn the Baron that by giving the Objectionists any appeasement, it will only weaken our country! It is understandable that after the war Baron Von Gunther grew disheartened by all the bloodshed, but he was naive to think the Objectionists would be willing to be reasonable. If one truly wants peace, one must always be ready to fight for it. And there should never be tolerance for the enemy..."

"But tolerence happens to be the policy Fauner Posen is governing by. And she supported the Baron's mission here," Fortunato said. He met Tedmund's gaze, watching him carefully. "You wouldn't have been tempted to undermine her wishes, Brother Tedmund?"

"I," Brother Tedmund's voice was cold as he spat out each word. "did not murder Baron Von Gunther!" He paused, taking a moment to compose himself. "Whatever disagreements I may have had with the Baron's idealism, I know at least he was an intelligent man, loyal to Posen and to Eisen itself."

"Indeed," said Grace, not sounding convinced. "Let's go back earlier then. Can you recall anything strange on the way or durin' your time here?"

Tedmund frowned, brow furrowing in thought. He shook his head. "Apart from that loathsome relic being found, nein."

"What about the dead servant?" Ulf asked.

"Unfortunate," shrugged the monk, though his expression hardened a little. "Cruel deaths like that are commonplace in Eisen these days -- though I still believe that it was a foreshadowing of things to come. That scheisse artifact..." Tedmund quickly made the sign of the Prophets' Cross. "...one way or the other, that killed the Baron. Its evil influence has corrupted this island somehow. And I fear it seeks to make tools of us all!"

Fortunato shot a quick glance over at Grace, who was doing her best to not roll her eyes at Tedmund's words. He cleared his throat softly. "Are you absolutely sure you didn't observe anything else out of place? Maybe some little thing overheard that you didn't think was important or even something on the ferry...?"

The monk's brow furrowed deeper. "Sigurd was on the ferry when I arrived. Already reeking of spirits...," He sniffed in disgust. Then he looked back up towards the Vodacce, his expression more sober. "Foreman...he was late. He nearly missed the ferry."

Ulf raised an eyebrow at that. "What was your impression of the doctor?"

"Quiet for the most part. Polite. He apologized for being late. During the trip here, he kept to himself. I couldn't blame him though. Sigurd has a very overwhelming personality," The Eisen made a face, then his eyes narrowed in thought. "But as far as I can tell since being here, he's either been outside, in his room, in the library or talking with the Baron. I get the impression he is avoiding me. Pity," A small smile appeared on Brother Tedmund's face, though lacking any real warmth. "I would be quite interested in learning more about his studies -- if they are what he says they are."

"Is that so?" Grace didn't bother to hide her look of distrust.

"When the Fourth Prophet comes, there will be no more need for terrestrial medicine. But until that time happens, the Vaticine Church still encourages such research into the healing sciences. It's a much more worthwhile pursuit than frivolities like air pumps," The monk's face twisted into a slight sneer. "Or archaeology."

"Er, tell us then, Brother Tedmund," Fortunato said quickly, spying the spark of anger in Grace's eyes. "Point blank, who do you think killed Baron Von Gunther?"

"Poison is the weapon of a coward, which Father Sigurd has shown himself to be," The Eisen's face grew pensive. "But a murderer? No...no, why take a risk? It'd be far easier for him to try to find someone else to beg guilders off of. You three? Maybe..." Tedmund chuckled harshly. "...maybe not. It would be stupid to kill a man after you just met him, especially one such as the Baron. All eyes would be on you -- though perhaps such clumsy tactics were the intent after all." He carefully looked over Grace, then shook his head. "No, Lady MacKenzie, I don't think you or your colleagues are the killers. As for Mannheim, what would be his motive? I saw no ill-will or resentment from him towards the Baron during my time here. And he is right. Posen would have the authority to override Von Gunther's will should she choose if it was the matter of inheritance. Which only leaves Doctor Foreman."

"An' you," said Grace.

"Yes, but I am supposed to be here. The isle is meant to be a religious retreat. By that logic, the Avalon does not fit."

The Highlander was silent in thought. "What makes you say that?" asked Fortunato, shooting a glance over to Ulf, who was now nodding a little.

"It's hard to put my finger on it exactly, but there is something to be said about being too quiet and polite, Signore Valeri. When swords are drawn, always be wary of the one who asks everyone to lower their arms, especially when he himself carries no visible blade. He has the most to gain," Brother Tedmund gave a cold smile. "Now, are we finished?"

***

"The monk does raise fair questions," Ulf said with some concern.

Brother Tedmund had finally taken his leave of the Explorers, who were currently back in the now-empty dining room. Lady Grace shook her head, annoyance clear on her face. "A self-righteous an' small-minded PIG is what he is! Callin' what we do a 'frivolity'..."

"What happened to 'diplomacy and tact'?" Grace shot Fortunato a black look and he sighed. "Look, I admit that Brother Tedmund isn't winning any friends here. Typical Eisen bluntness. His dislike of Father Sigurd and us is obvious! That being said, Tedmund didn't blame the Vendel for the murder when he easily could have."

"Maybe he's just tryin' to throw off suspicion on himself by not bein' so obvious," muttered the Highlander. "He's just tryin' to be clever. He could easily have snuck into the library to poison Baron Adelbert! Maybe he--"

"Maybe he is telling the truth," said Ulf, cutting in. "Grace, do not overthink this. You yourself said that anyone could be the killer. You need to be open to the possibility that it could be Foreman."

Grace shook her head again. "You're wrong an' so is Tedmund. David's been nothing but helpful!"

"Too helpful," The Vodacce piped up. "Could be the perfect cover..."

"Now who's overthinkin' things?"

"All I'm saying is that you -- we need to keep the man at arm's length right now. At least until we hear his story and can make sure he's not a suspect!" Fortunato added hastily, catching Grace's dark glare. "But there's something about Foreman that's a bit peculiar. He's--" Fortunato paused as Ulf's brows suddenly shot up in warning. He bit back a sigh. "He's right behind me, isn't he?"

"Do continue, Signore Valeri, please," Fortunato turned around to see the Avalon doctor now eying him coolly. Foreman was wearing a long brown overcoat, slightly damp.

Grace immediately took a step forward. "David--"

David held up a hand, offering the Highlander a faint smile. "It's all right, Grace. I've been called worse." He glanced back towards Fortunato. Though the smile was still on his face, the doctor's gaze hardened just a little. "Of all the things I've been called in my life, I should be lucky that Signore Valeri thinks I'm only a bit peculiar." Foreman's head then snapped towards Ulf. "What about you, Mister Pedersen? What do you make of me?"

If the Vesten thought David was baiting him, he didn't show it. "You were outside. More of your research?"

"Actually, no," The doctor removed his coat, draping it over his arm. "The rain's finally beginning to lighten up. I was down by the ferry dock. I was hoping maybe to see if there was a way to signal Insel or any passing ships. Unfortunately, I didn't have any luck."

"So you say," said Ulf, unimpressed.

"If you're going to start questioning me, may I at least sit down and get comfortable first?" It was obvious that Foreman was trying not to show any irritation. "Or do I have to wait until after the thumb screws are brought out?"

"Sit, yes!" The command came out of Grace harder than she had expected. She winced at how she sounded. "...sorry."

David gave Grace another smile, this time more sympathetic. "We've all been thrust in the middle of a terrible situation. You and your colleagues have every reason not to trust me or anyone else here." Sitting down, he looked over to Fortunato and Ulf and nodded. "But I'm not your enemy. I want this murderer caught as much as you do!"

"Last night, then--" began Fortunato.

"David was with me. We talked to Baron Adelbert about the history of the Von Gunthers!" Grace said quickly.

"--after that." Fortunato resisted the urge to roll his eyes, shooting a "this isn't helping" look towards Ulf instead. The Vesten remained impassive. "When did you leave the Baron and Grace?"

"A couple hours before midnight, though Grace retired first. And then I returned to my room a few minutes later. But the Baron was well when we left him." Foreman paused, adding. "I was alone in my room. I worked on my notes for a while, then I went to bed. I got up when the sun rose and worked on my notes some more. I was getting ready to go outside when I heard Mannheim's scream."

"Let's go to sometime earlier, Doctor Foreman," Fortunato tapped his fingers together. "As we understand it, you were not in the keep when Brother Tedmund had his 'outburst' against Baron Adelbert, correct?" As Foreman nodded, Fortunato pressed on. "Could you recall anything odd or suspicious when you got back?"

"It was tense. Very tense. I could tell the Baron was upset, though I didn't know why at the time. Father Sigurd took it upon himself to tell me what had happened privately, though I don't know how much of the situation he exaggerated," The Avalon grimaced, then looked over to Ulf. "However, and I don't know if this is related or not, the very next day was when Sigurd made his plea for a donation. When Baron Adelbert turned him down, he immediately blamed Brother Tedmund, claiming he 'intimidated' the Baron. The two of them very nearly came to blows!"

"Now that's something Brother Tedmund neglected to mention," murmured Fortunato.

"Indeed," Grace nodded, a frown now growing on her face. "I wonder if there's anything else he 'neglected' to mention?"

She turned her gaze over towards Ulf's direction. The Vesten only continued to stare impassively at the doctor. "We were told you almost missed the ferry to the isle."

"Er, yes," David scratched his head. "It's easy to get lost in the streets of Insel. And it didn't help that I kept running into guards who kept asking for my papers. Eisen bureaucracy...," He sighed, then smiled weakly. "At least it wasn't Freiburg."

"How was the ferry ride?" asked Fortunato. "Did you hear anything odd or suspicious during the trip?"

"It was loud," The doctor made a face. "As much as I hate to say it, it appeared Father Sigurd was drunk. And he and Brother Tedmund were already arguing when I arrived. For my own sanity's sake, I felt it was in my best interest to stay away from their row as much as possible!"

The Vodacce pressed on, "Were they arguing about anything specific?"

"Nothing specific, I'm afraid. Their argument went all over the place," Foreman shook his head, frowning. "Everything from minute passages from the Book of the Prophets to Kirk versus Vaticine City -- even down to who had the better Church vestments!"

"Theus!" exclaimed Grace, the irony not lost on her. She gave David a sympathetic nod. The doctor's mouth quirked into a small, yet grateful smile in return.

A grunt from Ulf drew both Grace and David's eyes back towards the Vesten. "You said this was a 'working vacation' for you. Where do you work then?"

"Burke University in Tara."

"Tara...Inismore?" Ulf's stony gaze narrowed. "You are not Inish."

"Well, the students haven't held that against me so far," Foreman shrugged. The Avalon's tone stayed even, though his brown eyes also narrowed slightly in response. "It's been the first time I've been able to leave the university in years. I wasn't expecting a tragedy to happen when I finally did."

"David," the Highlander began quietly. She looked over to the doctor, trying to keep her expression impartial. "who do you think killed Baron Adelbert?"

"I don't know," The doctor shook his head, but didn't look away from Grace. "Anyone here had the opportunity unfortunately. But what was the motive? Politics, religion...the artifact? The Baron's cause had his critics, but were they angry enough to kill him? Here, at his home with no place to run? It doesn't make sense. There's something I'm missing here..." David leaned forward in his chair, deep in thought.

"Brother Tedmund thinks you did it," said Ulf with a shrug.

"What?!" That caused Foreman to sit up in shock. He blinked, shaking his head as if to clear it. "Why would he think that?!"

"Ulf!" hissed Grace.

"He thinks you're too nice, to put it bluntly," said Fortunato.

Grace's head snapped towards the Vodacce, now staring icy daggers at both him and the Vesten. The Avalon rose from his chair. "Is that so?" Like before, the man's voice remained even and steady, but now his gaze was like stone. "My apologies then to Brother Tedmund, that my outlook isn't as bitter as his. Nor, it seems, is my judgement as swift as others..." Foreman looked directly at Ulf, then at Fortunato. "Mister Pedersen. Signore Valeri. Lady Grace..." Only when he looked over at Grace did David show a trace of kindness. "...good luck with the rest of your investigations."

The doctor walked towards the exit. At the door frame, he hesitated, giving Grace a sad glance but saying nothing. Then he left the room entirely. Grace was already striding over to her two friends, trying to control her anger. "What. Was. THAT. About?!" She spat out each word, crisp and sharp.

To Ulf's credit, he remained unflustered. "The doctor was called out for being too quiet and polite. I wanted to see his reaction. To see if he could be loud and impolite."

"An' what exactly were you hopin' to see if he was, Ulf?!" The Highlander snarled. "Were you expectin' David to suddenly stab you in the gut? Would that have made you finally happy?! Well, he didn't. The man wants to help us an' YOU push him away!"

"For a man who wishes to help, he offered only very vague information," Ulf folded his arms across his massive chest. "Foreman is hiding something. He is too in control of himself. That makes him dangerous."

"Unbelievable...," Grace shook her head, still glaring in frustration at the the Vesten. She turned towards Fortunato. "An' I suppose you're in agreement with him?"

"Well," Fortunato shifted in discomfort, trying to choose his words carefully. "I have to admit, I still think there is something odd about Doctor Foreman."

"See? Even Vodacce agrees with me!"

"But!" Fortunato continued hastily. "But maybe that's just the man's nature. Maybe he's more used to dealing with plants than people! I don't know, but I'm not willing to brand him a murderer just yet." He sighed, then jabbed a finger at the Vesten. "You're wrong about one thing though, Ulf. Foreman was helpful. That fight between Tedmund and Sigurd. We need to look into that." Fortunato looked back towards Grace, then over to Ulf in concern. "And we can't let our emotions get the best of us here."

Grace met the eyes of Ulf. Both of them nodded. "Agreed, Vodacce," rumbled the Vesten.

"Aye," Grace sighed, her anger finally fading. "We should just--"

"Ach, he will be the death of me!" The three Explorers turned to see a frustrated Mannheim in the hall, flanked by the bald servant. As Mannheim saw them, he froze, eyes growing wide as he realized what he just said. "I did not mean to say that!"

"Easy, Herr Mannheim," Fortunato raised his hands reassuringly. "Is everything all right?"

"Oh, Signore Valeri," The Eisen rubbed his forehead. He was still wearing his high-buttoned jacket from earlier. "It is Father Sigurd. He is underfoot everywhere. The servants cannot get anything done because he insists that at least two of them are near him at all time!" He shook his head in agitation. "Murder or not, the Baron would not have wanted the keep to fall apart after his passing. We have our duty!" Mannheim paused, looking at the trio hopefully. "You are ready to speak with him, ja?"

"Actually..." the Vodacce's face grew into a thoughtful smile. "...why don't we speak with you right now?"

Mannheim looked surprised. Then he nodded eagerly as the idea of time away from the Vendel priest hit him. He gestured to the servant, dismissing him, who then exited the hall without a word. "Oh! Of course, of course. We will go to the study. And please, take as much time as you need!"

***

"Have you made any progress?" Sitting in the chair Brother Tedmund had occupied earlier, Mannheim looked over at Fortunato and Lady Grace. "I still cannot believe this has happened. It's like a nightmare that I can never wake up from!"

"We have a few leads," said Fortunato.

"Herr Mannheim, we know this is a difficult time, but we have to ask. Where were you after supper last night?" asked Grace.

"In...in the parlor with the Baron and you for starters, Lady MacKenzie." Mannheim shifted nervously in his seat. "When Baron Adelbert left to speak with you and Doctor Foreman, I stayed in there in case Brother Tedmund or Father Sigurd needed anything or..." The Eisen fidgeted some more, wringing his hands.

"...or were going to start fighting again?" Fortunato finished. Mannheim nodded, looking awkward. Fortunato grimaced. "We understand those two nearly came to blows. What exactly happened? And were you there when Brother Tedmund accused the Baron of treason?"

"Ja," Mannheim nodded again. He shot a quick glance towards the door as if to reassure himself it was indeed shut, then lowered his voice. "Brother Tedmund all but claimed the Baron was betraying Eisen and that while he may have Posen's blessing, he didn't have Theus'. How could he say something like that? Baron Adelbert had done so much after the War to try to rebuild Eisen!" Mannheim shook his head sadly, then looked over to Ulf. "The Baron was so generous and kind. Even to those he just hired three months ago! He gave many people opportunities they wouldn't have had elsewhere. Like Hans..."

"The dead servant?" asked Ulf. "Foreman mentioned something about not being able to see his body."

"What was this again?" Grace's eyes immediately darted over to the Vesten in surprise.

"I assure you, Mister Pedersen, nothing could have been done for him," Mannheim sighed. "The doctor may have meant well, but I think he lacks 'bedside manner'. We wanted Hans to be left with some dignity after such a tragic accident! Not to have his body poked and prodded and picked apart."

"If we could get back to Tedmund and Sigurd," Fortunato bit back a sigh, seeing Ulf nod in agreement with the Eisen's assessment. "What was Father Sigurd like during his time here?"

"I do not like to speak ill of the clergy, but I have to say he's been difficult. Either he's been complaining about everything or arguing with everyone. And he drinks! He holds his liquor well, but..." Mannheim cringed. "...it does not help his mood. Baron Adelbert was very frustrated with him a few times. He compared Father Sigurd to the boca -- always taking and giving nothing in return. I'm afraid the Baron felt negotiations and compromises were as much a lost cause with him as they were with Brother Tedmund."

"An' when Baron Adelbert turned Sigurd's request for a donation down--?" Grace began.

Mannheim shook his head. "That's just it. The Baron was going to make a donation to Kirk. He just wasn't going to give it directly to Father Sigurd! But Sigurd still took offense, called him a coward and went looking for Brother Tedmund! I managed to get in between them before any punches were thrown. Brother Tedmund wasn't helping matters. I think he was actually amused by it all."

"Maybe that's why he never brought the fight up," muttered the Highlander. Her brow creased in thought. "Have either Father Sigurd or Brother Tedmund been to the Isle before? Were they invited specifically?"

"Nein, Lady MacKenzie. Though we have had guests from the High Objectionist Church in Kirk before. They were always pleasant, more open-minded individuals. Not like Father Sigurd at all, I am afraid to say," Mannheim paused, frowning. "However, Saint Gregor's Abbey had always refused our previous invitations. When Brother Tedmund agreed to come on behalf of the Abbey, the Baron was quite surprised."

"Who do you think killed the Baron?" Ulf's eyes drifted over towards Grace, then to Fortunato.

"I...," Mannheim swallowed, looking worried. He tried again. "I don't know why Saint Gregor's changed their minds. With all the threats Brother Tedmund implied...I don't know. I am afraid though." He looked up at the three of them. "I could dig out all the correspondence the Baron received. Would...would that help?"

"It may indeed. Thank you, Herr Mannheim," A small, thoughtful smile crossed the Vodacce's face. "Tell Father Sigurd we're ready to speak with him and then see what you can find."

"Of course, of course," The Eisen's head bobbed up and down as he rose from his seat. "I don't know what might be in them. I've always respected the Baron's privacy, but if it can help you catch his murderer, it has to be done."

After Mannheim left the study, the three Explorers all looked troubled. Grace broke the silence first. "Thoughts?"

"Your churches make big messes," muttered the Vesten. "Mannheim all but said he feared Brother Tedmund did it."

"Aye. An' I'm now more than a little concerned with Tedmund's order suddenly changin' their minds an' comin' to the Isle. Why now?" Grace sighed, rubbing her temples slightly. "Sigurd seems to be no prize either. It'll be interestin' to hear what he has to say. Especially if Tedmund is actually right about that gossip he had on him."

"By 'interesting' do you mean 'interesting' or do you mean 'We better be prepared for a load of Drachenscheisse'?" asked Fortunato.

"Both," sighed Lady Grace. She smiled weakly. "Just so long as we're tactful about it."

Chapter Text

Father Sigurd was already proving to be difficult. "No, no, NO!" The Vendel's fat face was red with agitation. "I refuse to talk if that SNAKE is in the room!" Sigurd shot a hate-filled glare towards an indignant Fortunato's direction.

"Father Sigurd, be reasonable. Please!" It was obvious Grace's patience was nearing its breaking point.

"I don't think you understand just how important my position is back in Kirk, Lady MacKenzie!" Father Sigurd scowled. "I cannot be asked to endanger any ecumenical affairs -- especially with a Vodacce spy around!"

"Yes, because Numa is so interested in how many gallons of brandy you've guzzled down," Fortunato said dryly.

The Vendel's eyes looked as if they were going to bulge out of their sockets. "And he insults me!" He wailed to no one in particular. "Here I am, close to death -- beset by enemies and assassins in every corner! Still he insists upon insulting me!"

Grace and the others were paying the priest's melodramatic rantings no heed. They already stood at the door of the study in private conference. "Stop smirking, Vesten. You're the one who nearly impaled him and I'm the one he wants kicked out?!" hissed the Vodacce.

Ulf shrugged, "The Vendel is not as stupid as he looks."

"No, maybe the Vendel is just as drunk as he looks. I don't think Sigurd is even trying to hide it at this point," Rolling his eyes, Fortunato bit back a resigned sigh. "All right. If it'll get Sigurd to finally open up and start talking, I'll leave. In the meantime, what do you want me to do, Grace?"

Grace pondered for a few moments. "Go back to the library. See if there's any clue we might have missed there an' make sure the relic is all right. Then, find Mannheim an' see if he's found anything useful in those letters."

Fortunato only smiled grimly and nodded before leaving the study. In unison, Grace and Ulf turned back to face Father Sigurd, who eyed the departing Vodacce with undisguised distrust. "Well then, Father Sigurd," Grace began coolly. "Now that we've taken care o' that, there's nothing to hold you back from talkin'."

"You are drunk," Ulf didn't even bother with subtlety.

"What of it? Stranded on an isle with a ruthless killer! I take my courage where I can!" The Vendel raised his chin defiantly, ignoring Ulf's snort of disgust. "My brother, not everyone deals with violence and murder as if they were so commonplace. Some of us actually prefer to live more civilized lives!"

"If we can get back to last night," Grace said quickly, spying the veins bulge in Ulf's temples.

"I didn't kill Baron Adelbert!"

"What did you do after dinner?" Smiling tightly, the Highlander just simply continued without acknowledging Sigurd's outburst.

"I was trying to open discussions yet again with Brother Tedmund. Unfortunately, it was a complete waste of my time. That man is a utter boor," Sigurd sniffed. "Stubborn, intolerant, as thick as the mud of Eisen itself. No, I take that back. That would be an insult to mud! Regardless, I talked and he refused to listen for about an hour. Then I retired to my room. I began drafting another letter to my collegues back in Kirk about my efforts so far that I was going to send off once I returned to Insel. Then I went to bed. I can't really recall when that was."

"Another letter?" asked Ulf, catching Father Sigurd's choice of words.

"I am very thorough in my reports, brother." The faint grin Sigurd gave Ulf had an edge of condescension to it. "I would be remiss in my duties if I left out any of the details!"

"So what were the details regardin' the Baron rejectin' your request for a donation then?" Grace asked, folding her arms across her chest.

Father Sigurd's head snapped back towards the Highlander, glaring. From his position, Ulf did little to hide his grim smile at the Vendel's discomfort. "That -- that didn't happen!" sputtered the priest. "It was just a misunderstanding! Tedmund was spreading foul lies to Baron Adelbert...I have many enemies, you know. Both the Vaticine Church and the Vodacce Princes are eager to see a man of my position discredited!"

"You have many enemies," The Vesten echoed flatly, shaking his head in disbelief.

"It's true! They will do anything and everything to see the High Objectionist Church and Kirk weakened! All our progress shattered!" As he addressed Ulf, Sigurd's gestures grew more frenetic with each word he uttered. "That is why we must be a united front. Stand as brothers -- for the sake of Objectionism and for the sake of Vendel!"

"You do realize that there are other inroads the Objectionist faith has made throughout Theah, Father Sigurd...," Grace quickly stepped between the priest and a now-silently snarling Ulf.

"The Highland Marches?" The Vendel asked with a chuckle. Another grin tinged with condescension curled across his fat face. "No offense, Lady MacKenzie, but your homeland knows little of the ways of true Objectionism. What's practiced there is all but Vaticine in name!"

"Horse shit!" snarled the young woman.

***

"Theus, why me?" Fortunato looked heavenward, but only saw the ceiling of the library for his troubles. The verbal explosion that erupted from the study wasn't entirely unexpected, though the fact that it came from Grace and not Ulf did come as some surprise to the Vodacce. He sighed, keeping his thoughts about the failure of diplomacy to himself. Fortunato cracked the bones in his neck with a small pop. The search of the library had proven to be a fruitless one. The Vodacce had searched every nook and crevasse of the room he came across. He had even tugged every book on every shelf on the off-chance there might have been some sort of secret passage hidden in the library.

At least the chest with the artifact remained undisturbed. Still, as a precaution Fortunato looked inside anyway. With a grimace, the Vodacce reached in to touch the smooth inside of one of the spiny shells, half-fearing the entire thing would suddenly snap shut and take off his hand. When it didn't, Fortunato let out the breath he didn't know he had been holding and withdrew his hand from the chest.

Suddenly, he heard the hurried sound of footsteps in the hall. Fortunato quickly shut the lid of the chest, then went to the door and looked out. Mannheim, clearly out of breath, was in a rush. "Herr Mannheim, what is it?"

"Oh, Signore Valeri!" The Eisen immediately made a beeline for him, wringing his hands worriedly. "I don't know what to think -- maybe it's nothing...."

"Steady, Mannheim. Just take a deep breath and tell me what you found. Was there something in one of the letters?"

"That's just it -- it's what I didn't find! I looked through all the recent correspondence Baron Adelbert had with both St. Gregor's Abbey and the High Objectionist Church in Kirk prior to the arrival of Brother Tedmund and Father Sigurd. I found nothing unusual or suspicious, so I decided to look elsewhere...."

"And?" prompted Fortunato.

"Signore Valeri, I found nothing from Doctor Foreman," Mannheim shook his head. "Nothing at all!"

"What?!" Fortunato's face first shone with surprise, then creased into a deep frown. "You mean to say that Foreman just showed up here uninvited? How did he present himself to the Baron then?!"

"He...," Swallowing, Manneheim tugged at his collar and looked at the Vodacce with wide eyes. "He said it was a great honour to come to the Isle and finally meet the Baron face to face. And that he wanted to thank Baron Adelbert for granting him 'this great scientific opportunity'. The way the doctor carried himself was as if he and the Baron were already old friends! He was so polite and charming. Baron Adelbert was completely swept up by him -- and so was I, I am ashamed to say. Baron Adelbert had been getting a touch forgetful at times -- and he had had private correspondence with scholars and Explorers before! So I thought that Foreman's arrival was something the Baron had just...neglected to notify me of beforehand." The Eisen cupped his head in his hands and moaned. "Oh, I blame myself..."

"'Polite and charming'...," muttered the Vodacce, eyes set in a steely grimace. "And so eager to help too. Well, it's time we get to the bottom of Doctor David Foreman once and for a--"

From upstairs, a bloodcurdling screech suddenly cut the Vodacce off.

***

"...and it was just a mere moment of weakness, Lady MacKenzie and brother Pedersen! You must understand that I have a certain status to uphold in Kirk. It's just the way civilized business is done these days," Sigurd's jowls shook as he pleaded with the unsympathetic Highlander and Vesten. "But I swear to Theus Himself that I never took nor asked for more than what was expected!"

Grace opened her mouth to offer a sharp retort when suddenly the agonizing scream from upstairs interrupted her. The Vendel priest immediately blanched, blubbering "All right, so maybe it was a little bit more than what was expected!"

But Ulf and Grace were already running out of the study.

***

A cacophony of various voices assailed Ulf and Grace's ears as they finally reached the source of the chaos. They could hear Mannheim yelling for the servants to secure the keep while Fortunato demanded to know what what going on and, just as forcefully, Doctor Foreman insisting that the Vodacce stay out of his way. Grace turned the corner first, seeing Fortunato back out of a doorway. Nearby, an ashen-faced Mannheim looked as if he was on the verge of losing it. The Vodacce met Grace's inquisitive look with a cold shake of the head and said just one name.

"Tedmund."

Grace rushed to the door frame. In the middle of the room was the crumpled body of Brother Tedmund, the coarse sackcloth of his habit pushed up to reveal one stab wound on his belly. By the deceased man's side on his knees was David. The Avalon's hands were stained red, the blood already taking on a sticky consistency. A satchel was draped across Foreman's shoulder and an opened surgical kit laid nearby. "I'm sorry," The doctor's voice cracked with remorse as he looked up at Grace. "He's gone. There's nothing I can do for him." He looked back at his hands with a grimace, then reluctantly wiped them on the leg of his trousers. As Foreman pulled himself back to his feet, the others could see Tedmund's blood had even stained the cuffs and part of his right sleeve of his tunic.

"By the Prophets!" Father Sigurd wheezed, finally reached where everyone else was. He stuck his head into the room, then immediately recoiled at the sight. "I was with them!" Sigurd frantically jabbed a finger at Grace and Ulf, now standing by Fortunato. The priest's eyes darted between the Vodacce and his sheathed sword, a black look of suspicion quickly clouding his face.

"And Signore Valeri was with me, Father Sigurd," Mannheim took a step forward, nodding to Fortunato. "We both came here together and found that the doctor had gotten here first."

"Brother Tedmund's not been dead for very long. One solid thrust right to his gut. I'd say a sword or a long knife," murmured Foreman. He picked up his kit and returned it to his satchel. "Not straight through him though, Whoever killed him went for an upward thrust that probably pierced his heart or lung." David gestured towards the dead monk's face, blood congealing at the corners of his mouth. "Poor soul choked on his own blood in the span of minutes."

"Theus!" Father Sigurd looked aghast. Again he glared at Fortunato. "Are you absolutely certain you were with him the entire time, Herr Mannheim? Everyone knows the Vodacce are ruthless, cowardly assassins...they can kill in a second!"

"You were here first, Doctor?" Ulf finally spoke, ignoring the Vendel. "How did you get here so fast?"

"I was exploring the keep when I heard the scream. I ran as fast as I could, but--"

"But did not Brother Tedmund say he was locking himself in his room?" The Vesten frowned. "How did you know the scream came from in here? And how did you get inside?"

"Well, when I ran by, the door was open a little," Foreman stiffened. "I looked inside and there was Tedmund, lying on the floor."

"So you say," Fortunato's eyes narrowed sharply. His gaze darted back towards the hall. "Just where exactly were you exploring around here then, Doctor? Having a look in our bedrooms maybe?"

"I don't like what you're insinuating, Signore Valeri," The Avalon scowled.

"And I don't like liars, Doctor Foreman," Fortunato matched David's scowl with one of his own. "Which means one of us has a problem!"

"Explain yourself, Fortunato," Grace's head snapped towards the Vodacce, a challenge in her tone, Meanwhile, Ulf looked over Foreman with renewed interest and wariness.

"It's not me who has to explain anything, Grace," Fortunato kept his eyes on the Avalon. "But I suspect our 'dear doctor' here has been less than honest about more than a few things!"

"I don't know where you're getting these absurd notions, Signore Valeri...," David glanced over towards the Vesten, who was continuing to give him a stony stare. "...though I have a theory. If you have something to say, then do me the courtesy of stop dancing about and just say it! Otherwise, you're only wasting my time -- and everyone else's -- with such nonsense." Turning his back on Fortunato, the doctor's gaze swept around the room, finally falling upon the wardrobe. The door was slightly ajar. "Now what do we have here...?"

"Allow me, Herr Doctor," Before David could move, Mannheim had already strode into the room towards the wardrobe. The Eisen nudged the door open, then quickly drew out a distinctive red robe complete with a hooded mask bearing a gold Prophet's Cross. A collective gasp came from the others as they recognized the gravity of what the robe represented.

"Theus, I was only joking about Tedmund being an Inquisitor!" Fortunato said before he could stop himself. As the Vodacce saw the uncomfortable glares now shot in his direction, he only threw up his hands. "Surely, I wasn't the only one thinking that?!"

"An Inquisitor..." The Vendel shuddered, making the sign of the Prophets. "Good riddance then. Who knows what that fanatic may have had planned for us?"

"Doesn't change the fact he was still murdered, Father Sigurd," Grace's words were edged with acid. "An' no doubt by the same bastard who killed Baron Adelbert!"

"The doctor said it was a sword or a knife that killed Tedmund. Well, he has a sword!" Sigurd spat, pointing at Fortunato, then immediately drew back a couple of steps, pointing now at Ulf. "And he has a knife!"

Ulf and Fortunato shared a look of disgust. Both men drew their weapons, revealing clean steel. "You're gettin' more an' more ridiculous, Father Sigurd," Grace muttered. "You forgettin' I got a blade as well?"

"Wound's too small for your claymore, Grace, if that's any consolation," Foreman said. "Herr Mannheim, where was everyone recently? Does the keep have any sort of armory?"

"Ja, but I have the only key to it," Tossing the robe onto the bed, Mannheim frowned at the doctor, then shut the wardrobe. "However, I recall that you had a sword when you arrived here, Doctor Foreman--"

"--a sword he claims he does not like to carry--" Ulf rumbled.

"--and your room is only a couple doors down from Brother Tedmund's," continued the Eisen. He raised his chin. "In light of certain discoveries, your presence here on the Isle raises some curious questions. You will show us your weapon. Now."

"'Certain discoveries'?" David looked taken aback, a troubled frown growing on his face. "Herr Mannheim, just what exactly do you mean?!"

"David..." Grace felt her breath catch in her throat. Uncertainty fell upon the woman's eyes as she regarded the doctor carefully. "...do as Herr Mannheim says. Please."

The Avalon appeared to hesitate for a moment, as if trying to find some sort of protest, then shrugged. "Of course, Grace," Foreman said. He sighed, shaking his head as he exited Tedmund's room. "This isn't going to get us anywhere. I left my coat over my sword when I came back upstairs after speaking with you and your collegues earlier. It's still there -- peacebonded to boot!"

David threw open the door to his room. It was a near-duplicate of Tedmund's lodgings. The bed was along the left wall. The wardrobe was opposite the door on the back wall. By the right wall was a small desk and chair. There was a large trunk by the foot of the bed. Draped messily over the chair was the doctor's long brown overcoat. Foreman's attention was immediately drawn to it. "Something's wrong. That's not how I left things..." With swift strides, he reached the chair and pulled his coat off it, revealing only a bare seat. "...no."

Fortunato arched an eyebrow, though his tone was less than impressed. "You say something is wrong, Foreman?"

"My sword was here. I know it was here," The Avalon spoke rapidly, his words edged with agitation as he shook his head. He turned his gaze back towards the rest of the room. "Someone must have taken it...how? I was in the hall. I would have seen or heard someone approach the door from where I was--" David looked back at Grace, almost pleading. "Grace, you need to believe me!"

"I--" The Highlander shut her mouth, not knowing what to say to the man. She looked pained, wanting to believe otherwise, but feeling the cold grip of reality as the events unfolded all too strongly before her.

"I grow tired of your lies and distractions, Doctor Foreman," Mannheim crisply said, stepping swiftly into the room and towards the wardrobe. The Eisen opened the door and a smallsword suddenly fell out, clattering onto the stone floor. The blade was tarnished with the unmistakable dark crimson of blood. Sigurd was the first to make a sound, a small hiccup of shock escaping him. The Vendel clutched his mouth in fear, cowering as far back in the hall as he could.

"...no...," David breathed, transfixed for a heartbeat by the sight of his bloodstained sword. "No." More forceful, as he tried to remain in control of his emotions. "I didn't kill the Baron. I didn't kill Tedmund -- I'm being set up!" The doctor looked right at Mannheim, his eyes narrowing sharply. "How did you know where to exactly go?" Immediately, Foreman lunged, grabbing the front of a now-panicking Mannheim's jacket.

"David, don't!" cried Grace. Fortunato drew his blade. "Don't do anything rash, Foreman. You've nowhere to run!"

"Vodacce, put away your sword," The Vesten said quietly. Rabbitslayer remained tucked by Ulf's side. He raised his hands as he took a step into the room. "I know the doctor is not a stupid man." Another broad step. "He deserves the chance to explain himself." Ulf took another step, a faint smile now crossing his face. "We will handle this with diplomacy."

Foreman tentatively released his hold on Mannheim's jacket, who staggered back. The doctor drew in a ragged breath and nodded at Ulf. "Thank you, Mister Pedersen. That's the first sensible thi--"

*WHUMP!*

Before David could finish his sentence, the Vesten had sent him crashing to the floor with a vicious headbutt. A small moan escaped the unfortunate man, then he remained still in a collapsed heap.

"Well done, Ulf," nodded Fortunato. "Very well done indeed. You are all right, Herr Mannheim?"

"Ja," The Eisen coughed, quickly straightening his collar as he did. "My thanks, Herr Pedersen!"

"What kind of diplomacy is THAT?!" sputtered Father Sigurd.

"Vesten diplomacy," Ulf popped his neck, a grim smile on his face. "Too much diplomacy gives me a headache though."

Grace said nothing. All her face held was a numb grimace.

Chapter Text

It had been decided by the Explorers, after much discussion, that they would wait until the next day to begin interrogating the prisoner. That, not only would it give them time to thoroughly search through Foreman's belongings but, as Fortunato so eloquently put it, "make the skinny bastard stew and sweat in his own juices for a while!" Ulf offered, partially in jest though it was hard to tell, to demonstrate more aspects of "Vesten diplomacy" in order to get Foreman to talk. Fortunato mulled it over for a few moments before rejecting it "for now" while Lady Grace remained disturbingly silent on the issue. All Mannheim said on the matter was to ask the if trio would let him know what (if anything) the doctor revealed and that he would leave them to their own devices.

"You're absolutely certain you can't sense anything specific, Grace?" whispered Fortunato, nudging his head towards the table where Foreman's possessions now laid.

"Aye, I'm afraid so," The Highlander grimaced, wiggling her left thumb a bit. "Still can't tell what's settin' it off or where. Whatever it is, it's interferin' with me tellin' if he brought anything sorcerous with him."

"Sorcerous, maybe. Secretive, definitely," whispered Ulf with a scowl. He tapped the leather-bound journal in his hands, then handed it off to the Vodacce. "The man writes in cyphers and riddles."

"It would have been too much to ask for Foreman to make it easy for us, I suppose," Fortunato bit back a sigh. "Time we get some answers then. Grace?" At the Highlander's nod, Fortunato shared a grim smile with the Vesten, then all three of them turned to face the cell.

"According to Herr Mannheim, a majority of the exiles sent to the Isle lived in comfort in the quarters upstairs," Fortunato began idly. "Of course, every once in a while, there would be a 'guest' who proved to be more difficult than most and he would reside down here for some time until he learned to behave." The Vodacce gestured to the dark stone walls at the back and then to the strong iron bars separating the Explorers from the prisoner. I'm sure Fauner Posen will have similar arrangements for you back in Insel, Foreman. Though you probably won't be staying in them for very long."

The only response to Fortunato's words was silence. No more the picture of respectability, the doctor was slouched up against the back wall of the darkened cell, one long leg sticking out and the other knee pulled up. Next to the man was a wooden trencher. All that was left on it were scraps of cold ham, a crust of coarse Eisen pumpernickel and a plum pit. The dead monk's blood on his cuffs had dried and stiffened now to a dull maroon color. His brown hair was unkempt, all sticking up and out like weeds in a field. His head was slumped down, chin barely touching his collarbone, but his dark eyes remained raised and Grace could swear Foreman's emotionless stare was focused on her.

She tensed and only folded her arms, not wanting to give the man the satisfaction of being unnerved and looking away in discomfort. Ulf, meanwhile, poured himself a cup of water from the stone ewer that also shared the table with Foreman's belongings. Fortunato gave a small snort of dismay before continuing.

"Here's our theory. We think you're a freelance digger. We don't know who you're working for yet -- maybe Caligari, maybe Heilgrund -- but somehow you knew the Isle held relics. So you cooked up this story about researching thorns and the Baron was trusting enough to believe it. I must say, collecting samples was a nice touch," The Vodacce nodded at the various glass jars containing soil, seeds and fruit. "It gave you the perfect excuse to go poking around outside. But unfortunately for you, somebody else found an artifact first, secured it and word was sent to the Explorers Society before you could claim your prize!"

Fortunato paused for a moment. Ulf slurped. The Avalon gave no reaction to either man.

"By then you knew Baron Adelbert's nightly routine rather well, especially in regards to the library. You slipped the poison in his brandy, then were conveniently up in time to deliver a diagnosis of murder next morning. You knew full well that you didn't have to make any accusation -- that suspicion from everyone else would fall on us naturally as the new arrivals. You set us up to be discredited in the hopes that you could then make off with the artifact. You were clever, Foreman. Perhaps too clever. Brother Tedmund still had his doubts about you. So you decided to find out just how close he was to the truth. Only this time, you came across a man who wasn't buying your flimsy charms and lies. Instead, you found out that Tedmund was a member of the Inquisition. That's when you knew he was a threat...that's when you knew he had to die!"

Foreman said nothing, continuing to stare impassively at Grace. "Come on, Foreman," Fortunato rolled his eyes. "I'm giving you some credit here. Here, at least, your motive is just simple greed and not religious sabotage. Who do you work for?!"

"Save your breath, Vodacce. The Eisenfaust does not care about the motives of a coward," Glowering, the burly Vesten planted himself in front of Grace. "She will be more interested in seeing justice done. The Baron was a good man and had a noble mission. No one will shed any tears should the hangman make you suffer by slowly throttling you instead of granting you a quick and merciful death!"

"Ah, but that's if Posen actually believes in any sort of mercy," Fortunato began thumbing through the doctor's journal. A thoughtful frown crossed his face. "You murdered an Inquisitor as well. I'm sure the Eisenfaust would have no trouble at all turning you over to the Inquisition's clutches instead. And I'm sure you know what they do. Torture not even found in your worst nightmares! You'll be begging for death, Foreman. Spare yourself that agony. Tell us who hired you!"

The doctor slowly raised his head, meeting now the eyes of the Vodacce. "I didn't kill the Baron or Tedmund." Foreman clenched his jaw, his tone maddeningly quiet. "I'm not the murderer."

"Come off it, Foreman!" Fortunato exploded. "You honestly expect us to believe that you just happened to stumble across Tedmund's body like that?!"

"Yes," said the Avalon. "His door was open a little and I saw him on the floor. Like that."

"'His door was open a little'. That seems to be a common occurrence for you, Foreman," glared Fortunato. "I recall you claiming that the library door was open 'a little' as well when Ulf and I caught you snooping around the artifact!"

The Vesten took a long slurp of water, draining the cup. "Do you know what we found among your things, Avalon? These..." Ulf set his cup down, then picked up three small vials. For a moment, the doctor appeared to tense up at the sight of them. Ulf's mouth curled into a small, cold smile. "We found them in your trunk -- hiding in a false bottom. Vodacce missed it. I did not. What poisons are these?"

"They're harmless. They're herbal compounds from the Crescent Empire. A colleague of mine back in Tara gave them to me because she thought I'd be interested in looking them over." Foreman shut his eyes briefly, shaking his head. "They're not poison."

"If they are not poison, then why did you go out of your way to hide them?" asked Ulf, unconvinced.

"They're Crescent. I couldn't risk having them out openly. I--" The doctor stopped. A weak bark of laughter escaped him as he shook his head again. "I don't even know why I'm bothering. Your minds are already made up."

"A smart answer for everything," Fortunato muttered. He waved the journal. "Answer me this then, Foreman. What would a botanist think would be so important enough that he'd write in code for? Flora doesn't lend itself well to intrigue."

"Oh, you'd be surprised, Signore Valeri," A faint, yet knowing smile crept up on the Avalon's face. "The Falisci vineyards of your native Vodacce, for example. You can never tell if a fungal breakout there is an unfortunate happening or an intentional infestation. And don't even get me started on what lengths the Falisci will go to protect their cuttings from theft."

"Damn you and your flippant mouth!" In frustration, Fortunato snapped the journal shut and slammed it back down onto the table. He turned back towards Grace, waving for Ulf to follow him in private conference. "We're getting nowhere," hissed the Vodacce. "I say we let him rot and hope Posen uses him for target practice!"

"I can make him talk," Ulf set the vials down and cracked his knuckles loudly.

"No," said Grace, cutting off Fortunato. Both men looked at the Highlander with concern. "I can get Foreman to talk. He'll open up to me. But I'll have to be alone."

Fortunato's frown grew troubled. "I don't think that's wise, Grace."

"Agreed," nodded the Vesten. "If you give Foreman half a chance, he will get into your head. Look how easily he got into Vodacce's!" Ulf pointedly ignored the black look Fortunato gave him. "That is what he wants."

"I don't like it either, but you saw the way he was starin' at me," The Highlander made a face, pushing back a few strands of blonde hair out of her eyes that had escaped her bun. "He'll talk. An' I'll be careful. It's not like I have the key to his cell or anything. We left that with Mannheim."

"If he tries anything--" began Fortunato.

"--then Fauner Posen will be spared the expense o' the hangman," finished Grace, lips quirking into a mirthless smile.

***

Lady Grace watched the prisoner as carefully as he watched the exit of Ulf and Fortunato. The silence was unnerving as she felt Foreman's eyes return to look at her. But this time the doctor's expression held no coldness or defiance. Instead, it held uncertainty and concern -- and perhaps even a hint of hope. "Grace..." he breathed. He quickly pulled himself up to his feet and approached the bars.

Grace visibly stiffened, trying to steel herself and hating that, even now, there was still the fluttering pang in her gut when she heard David's voice or looked into his dark and open gaze. Seeing her tense up, David immediately took a step back from the bars, his brown eyes silently imploring her. Grace swallowed, forcing herself to take a step towards him. "...talk..." Her voice was low and gruff.

"Your friend Ulf has a very hard head," He smiled faintly. Almost encouragingly even, though whether Foreman did it for her benefit or his own Grace couldn't tell. "Grace, I--"

"You'll address me as Lady MacKenzie from now on, Doctor Foreman. An' I'd suggest you drop the jokes. They'll do you no good," Grace said brusquely. "Now talk. You claim you were explorin' the keep when Brother Tedmund was murdered. Where were you about then?"

David's smile immediately dropped off. "So it's going to be that way," he said quietly. Was that sadness now in his eyes? But the doctor nodded. "Yes. I was exploring upstairs."

"Where upstairs?"

Now it appeared to be the Avalon's turn to tense up again. He shifted a little in his cell, as if reluctant to answer Grace. Finally, he spoke. "I was trying to get into Baron Adelbert's room. I wanted to examine his body some more."

"You what?!" Grace looked abhorred.

"I did say I was trying, Grace. I didn't say I actually succeeded. His door was locked. I've been wracking my brains trying to figure out where they've lain the Baron's body out before they take it back to Insel. I've looked everywhere I could think of here in the keep," David shook his head, ignoring the icy glare the Highlander suddenly gave him. "His quarters were the last place I wanted to check. I was in the hall when I heard Tedmund scream -- with an open view of both his doorway and mine! But I didn't see anyone approach. I wonder--"

Grace cut in. "The Baron didn't invite you to come to the Isle, did he?"

"That's besides the point..." Foreman rubbed his temples, frowning.

"That's exactly the point, Doctor Foreman!" snapped the Highlander. Heart thumping hard in her chest, Grace's grey eyes narrowed sharply. She drew in a quick breath to steady herself, her tone quieter but no less firm. "Brother Tedmund was right. You don't belong here. Why did you come here really?"

Again, David tensed, hesitating. "It was vital. I had to take the risk." Now he took the step closer to her, nearly pressing himself against the bars now as brown eyes intently bore into grey. "Grace, the artifact. There's something not right about it. Something I just can't put my finger on yet..."

"...so you were here for the artifact..." Grace tore herself away from Foreman's stare. She bit down on the inside of her lip, trying to stop the sudden shaking in her body. "Who are you?"

"No one. Just a passing stranger," Though his voice was distant, David didn't turn away. "Grace, you know I didn't do this."

"Don't presume to speak on what I do an' don't know, sirrah!" Grace snarled, a spark of anger flashing in her eyes. "You don't know a damn thing about me!"

"I know you're a brave and intelligent woman. Eager for adventure, the journey just as important as the goal. You're strong and passionate and you never give up. And I know you've never settled for the obvious path about anything ever before in your life." David's voice was just a hair above a whisper. "Tell me I'm wrong."

"How do--?" Grace found herself faltering, her very breath caught in her throat. There it was again, that sense of familiarity she had when she first laid eyes on him. She felt her heart waver, the flicker of doubt that still wanted to fan itself into a full flame and believe David Foreman in spite of everything. Then, she suddenly stiffened in realization. "My lecture. Of course. I should have known..." Grace shook her head, tone now hollow.

"Grace, please! I--"

The Highlander continued to shake her head, pressing on. "My lecture. The one you said you attended in Cardican a few months ago." Her throat felt dry as her gaze hardened. "An' if that was the case, then why did you say comin' to Eisen was the first time you left Burke an' Inismore in years?" She heard a sudden rasp of breath from Foreman, eyes now wide with alarm. She had caught him -- and he knew it. Foreman opened his mouth, quickly trying to stammer out an explanation, but Grace spoke first. "As I suspected. We're done here then. Good day, Doctor Foreman..." She turned to leave.

"Lady MacKenzie, wait..." Grace paused, letting her eyes drift back towards the cell. The doctor's shoulders sagged in defeat. His voice tired and low, he could barely look at Grace now. He gave a resigned nod. "...I'll talk. May I have a cup of water first please?"

Grace allowed herself a small smile of triumph, cold and bitter, but triumph nonetheless. "Now that's much better, Doctor." She poured a cup from the ewer, then approached the cell. She held the cup out. "A wet whistle better loosen that tongue o' yo--"

Foreman moved swiftly, reaching through the bars and grabbing Grace's extended arm by the elbow. He pulled her towards him, cup dropping from her hand. Before the woman could even scream or cry out, his free hand was already grasping the back of her head. Foreman's lips suddenly pressed against hers, firm yet tender, and for half a moment she forgot herself, stunned.

Then Grace's mind registered the cold, hard metal of the bars against her hot, flushed cheeks. She pushed back furiously, finally tearing herself free from the Avalon. "Damn you!" choked Grace. She frantically pawed at her mouth, her entire body shuddering with rage -- it had to be rage; that's all she would admit to -- as she took in Foreman's slight smirk. He just calmly folded his arms across his chest as if nothing had happened. "I could have helped you, you bastard!" Grace spat. "Remember that when the noose finally snaps an' Legion takes you!"

She stormed out of the dungeon without another look back, the echo of her angry footsteps fading away with each passing moment. Only after it was totally silent did the smirk finally fall from the doctor's face. He let out the breath he had been holding...

...and carefully unfurled his fingers to reveal a single hairpin cradled now in his hand.

Chapter Text

"Grace, is everything all ri--?" The question immediately died in Fortunato's throat as soon as he spied the red-faced Highlander. The Vodacce prudently took a step back before asking his new question. "Dare I ask what happened?"

"I don't want to take about it," growled Grace.

"Foreman--"

"I said I don't want to talk about it!" she hissed, still trembling. She swallowed, trying to regain some composure. "The rain's stopped. I'm goin' outside for some air."

"But Grace..."

"Let her be, Vodacce," Ulf clamped a firm hand down on Fortunato's shoulder, then nodded to Grace. The Highlander returned the nod with a grateful smile, but it faded fast as she exited the parlor.

"Do you really think it's a good idea for her to go off on her own like that, Ulf?" Concern was clear on Fortunato's face.

"It is never good to contradict a woman, Vodacce," shrugged the Vesten. "Diplomacy has at least taught me that much."

Fortunato rolled his eyes. "I'm serious, Ulf. Foreman might have tried to do something!"

"'Might have', Vodacce?" Ulf arched a brow slightly. "Of course he probably tried to do something. Why else would Grace be upset? The Avalon is unscrupulous." The Vesten let out a small, thoughtful "hmph", then shrugged again. "Her pride has been shaken by this entire affair. We must trust that she will talk to us when she can. Meanwhile, take some comfort in that justice has not been cheated for the sake of vengeance. In that way then, the doctor has lost."

"That's very profound for a barbarian," murmured Fortunato with some surprise. He then sighed. "Well, Ulf, you were right about distrusting Foreman after all. Go ahead and say 'I told you so'."

"I told you so," the Vesten said impassively. Then he sighed as well, glancing back over where Grace had been. "Though I wish I had been wrong."

***

The doctor's heart skipped a beat as the cell door swung open with a loud creak. Satisfied that no one had been alerted by the noise, he quickly exited the cell, pocketing Grace's hairpin with a brief look of guilt. Foreman made his way to the table, grimacing now at his blood-stained shirt. The grimace became more thoughtful as he ran a thumb across the dried blood on one cuff. His fingers moved swiftly in unbuttoning. Pressed for time or not, Foreman had to risk granting himself the dignity that a fresh shirt allowed. It probably helped that the Explorers already had his clothing strewn out in the open.

The doctor threw his long overcoat on next, then grabbed his satchel. He tossed in his surgical kit and a roll of linen bandages. His eyes darted towards the dungeon door and, in doing so, he accidentally knocked his journal onto the floor as he reached for it. Blood freezing, the man frantically scrambled for both book and bookmark, making sure the ribbon was firmly planted back between its pages before the journal disappeared into his satchel. Foreman exhaled as quietly as he could, hoping again that no one had heard anything or was on their way down. He scooped up the three vials and placed them in the satchel as well.

The doctor's expression grew troubled, recalling now the snatches of conversation he had managed to overhear about Grace's magic. That had been an unexpected stroke of luck -- but disturbing as well in its own right. He shot a glance at the stone ewer as if contemplating something, then turned and shrugged, instead looking through his belongings one more time. His sword wasn't among them. No doubt, the blade was elsewhere, either secured as evidence or claimed as a trophy. It didn't matter. Foreman's frown deepened as he moved over to the trunk itself. The Vesten may have successfully uncovered the vials, but he hadn't found everything.

He pressed two rivets on the lid, then pushed out a particularly tarnished band of metal. A secret drawer popped out of the side of the lid. For a heartbeat, the Avalon stiffened in hesitation, then finally drew out the item that laid in it. With eyes cold and hard, Foreman beheld the pistol now in his hand.

***

"It's the inquest I'm dreading the most, Ulf," Fortunato grimaced. "Foreman's execution may be swift when it actually happens, but before we get to it, I have this sinking dread of Posen's people constantly belaboring the point and asking to repeat matters over and over again. Must be all the mud sticking in their ears..."

Ulf rolled his eyes. "So you are back to the mud again, Vodacce?"

"It's either blame the mud or basic human obstinacy," said Fortunato wryly. "I haven't even gotten into the whole situation with the Inquisition yet. That's a potentially sticky mess in of itself."

"Indeed," the Vesten nodded, pausing. "They may be too embarrassed to attempt anything publicly. We will have to watch the shadows. The doctor will only take up so much of their time and efforts."

"Joy," sighed the Vodacce. He shook his head ruefully. "'The murderer of one of our own? Nothing to worry about! A new Syrneth artifact found? Chaos! Damnation! Burn the heretics!'" Fortunato made a hideously exaggerated face, waving his hands wildly and then chuckled. "I tell you, Ulf. It'll be a relief having things get back to normal."

"Agreed, Vodacce," The trace of a small formed on Ulf's face, then he grew pensive. "I only hope things will get back to normal for Grace as well."

"Like you said, Ulf. It's just something we'll have to trust her on when she can." Fortunato contemplated the back of his hand as he moved down the hall. "You know, Grace would be absolutely furious if we went behind her back and attempted to interrogate Foreman again without her present."

"The rage of a drachen," nodded the Vesten, following a step behind. "Especially if she thinks we introduced the skull of the Avalon to his cell wall because of how he treated her."

"Which is furthest from the truth, of course! We don't know what was said or done after we left. All we know is what happened prior! It's not our fault Foreman insisted upon being stubborn and tight-lip--" Both men turned the corner towards the stairs.

And immediately froze in their tracks.

"The word you're looking for is 'tight-lipped', I believe, Signore Valeri," Doctor Foreman said calmly, pistol carefully raised at the Vodacce and Vesten. "Indoor voices now, gentlemen. No sudden moves and hands up where I can see them."

***

It was something to be said for the state of Fortunato's life that he and Ulf had already experienced many people threatening them with death prior to encountering Doctor Foreman. Yet in the Avalon's cool gaze Fortunato saw little to get a fix on. No cocksure smugness of the calculating mastermind, no cold-hearted deadness of the mercenary or self-righteous manic delusion of the zealot. Not even the blatant trembling of the cowardly henchman trying to save his own skin with a bluff. Just a man in a coat with a satchel and a gun. Even now, the man was disturbingly unreadable and the Vodacce recalled Ulf's earlier observations about the doctor being too in control of himself. Fortunato shot a quick glance towards the seething Vesten, no doubt measuring their chances if one of them chose to suddenly rush Foreman.

"First poison, then the blade and now a gun," muttered the Vodacce, eying his own impotently sheathed sword. "You're getting more and more desperate every time we see you, Foreman. Still a bit of a surprise though."

"Vesten missed it," the doctor said with no humour. He shrugged. "Besides, you have my sword elsewhere."

"And here I thought you weren't a murderer?" The Vodacce's tone was dry and mocking.

"I'm not," Foreman didn't take the bait, keeping the gun fixed on both men. "But I will defend myself if I have to."

"Is that what killing Baron Adelbert and Brother Tedmund were then? 'Defending' yourself?!"

"Shut up, Vodacce," Ulf grumbled. Out of the corner of Fortunato's eye, he could make out a slight nod from Ulf. "Avalon, if you must shoot, shoot Vodacce first. It is his turn to play bullet catcher."

"My turn?!" Fortunato turned towards the Vesten with a glare as his chin darted downward briefly. "You're still holding that incident with Van der Trask against me?! You ungrateful..." He immediately switched to Vendel. "[...flea-bitten we jump him on two--!]"

"[I don't think so, gentlemen,]" interrupted the doctor matter-of-factly in Vendel. He then switched back. "A nice attempt though. Now turn around. Neither of you want me firing this."

"Afraid it'll bring the house down on your head?" An incensed Fortunato rolled his eyes as he and Ulf turned around.

"In a matter of speaking," Foreman said cryptically.

Ulf shook his head, growling. "You will not escape, Avalon."

"If I meant to escape, I wouldn't be doing this," They heard a sigh escape from the man. "But you're right though, Signore Valeri. I am desperate. And I'm sorry -- I'm so sorry -- that I have to involve you two in this. I doubt either of you believe me, but there it is. Now, back to the library."

Fortunato's eyes narrowed sharply at that last sentence. "Your employers must be paying you a fortune to get their hands on that artifact, Foreman. No wonder Grace was so disappointed in you..." He risked a glance back to see a look of regret now on the doctor's face.

"She already thinks the worst of me," Tone quiet, the Avalon just shook his head. "What's one more added to the list?"

***

The three men walked, Vesten flanking Vodacce with the Avalon two steps behind them. "We could make a run for it. Call his bluff...he has to be bluffing," whispered Fortunato to Ulf through gritted teeth. "The worst he could do is shoot you."

"No, Vodacce. Something is not right here." Ulf grimaced. "The Avalon moves without sense. Why not imprison us? Why take us along? We must stall for time. Find out what he really is up to. We cannot risk him going after Grace or anyone else." A beat. "Except the fat Vendel. Him, we can risk."

"Foreman said he was desperate. Maybe he's finally running out of cleverness," muttered the Vodacce. "You see an opening, take it. I don't care if he works for Reis himself. Knowing that won't do us any good if we end up dead!"

"We're here, gentlemen. Step inside, all the way to the chest, Signore Valeri." The doctor gestured a little with the pistol. "Then you, Mister Pedersen, opposite wall."

Fortunato bit back a grimace as he obeyed. But out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Vesten's girth blocking Foreman's line of sight while the Vodacce entered the library. In that brief moment, his hand quickly dropped to his hilt, nudging it a little out of his sheath. As Fortunato reached the chest and turned, he silently prayed that the Avalon didn't notice.

Shutting the library door, Foreman then stood off to the side of it. "Open it."

"Far be it for me to advise a murderer and a thief," Fortunato smirked in spite of himself. "but wouldn't keeping it in the chest make for an easier escape?"

"Open it, please, Signore Valeri." The Avalon's dark eyes narrowed and Fortunato thought he detected a hint of what might be frustration now in the man's voice. Fortunato looked over to the impassive Ulf and gave an elaborate shrug, but then opened the chest. "Take the item out carefully and place it on the table."

"And then what? Do you want a little song and dance too? I should warn you, Ulf might be better for that. I step on far too many toes," The Vodacce's tone was light, the banter coming easier than he thought as he placed the spiky relic on the table. He noted the doctor's eyes darting between both men before being drawn to the artifact.

"I know both of you have attended several expeditions with the Explorers before. So you must have some idea of field protocol." Foreman pointed at the artifact. "Take a close look at that and tell me what's wrong with it."

Fortunato frowned as he and Ulf shared a look, the revelation that the doctor knew more than a little something of their time in the Explorers Society a dangerously uncomfortable one. The frown was still on his face as he looked over the unchanged artifact. Four thick, bone-hard shells attached to each other at the bottom covered in thin, narrow spikes uniformly ashen-white and smooth. Fortunato then shot a baleful look over at the doctor and pointedly poked one of the shells, half-hoping that one of the spikes would suddenly fly off and impale the Avalon. Nothing happened.

"What's wrong with it is that it's not properly secured and there's a man pointing a gun at me." The Vodacce's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"It's clean, Signore Valeri. Totally clean," Foreman shook his head, taking a few steps now towards the table. "Mannheim said that that thing was uprooted by a boar, but there's not a speck of dirt or mud anywhere on it -- inside or out!"

"Rain could have washed it off," rumbled Ulf.

"Every nook and cranny though? Yet Mannheim said he found it like that...," The doctor looked more animated as he faced Ulf. Meanwhile, seeing the Avalon's focus elsewhere, Fortunato nudged his blade a little further out. "Eisen mud sticks to everything for a damn long time, Mister Pedersen."

"It could be magic. The artifact keeps mud off itself."

"Well, that's easy enough to test then...catch!" With his free hand, the doctor suddenly reached into his coat pocket, drew something out and tossed it to the surprised Vesten. Catching it, Ulf recognized it as one of the jars filled with soil that Foreman had collected. "Homemade Eisen mud. Just add water. Smear a little of that onto the artifact, will you please? If it suddenly flies off, then it's the artifact itself, but if it stays--"

"Enough of this nonsense!" Growling, the Vodacce suddenly lunged forward towards the doctor, drawing his blade free. Foreman immediately whipped the gun towards Ulf. The Vesten rolled his eyes and sighed audibly, the grim look now on his face clearly saying "not again".

"Stay right where you are, Valeri." His eyes wide, the Avalon spoke rapidly, the hint of frustration in his voice from before now threatening to turn frantic. "Don't make me use this. I'll--!"

"No. No more threats, Foreman. No more games," A cold smile crept upon Fortunato's face as he slowly closed the distance. Still grimacing, Ulf followed suit, but Foreman held his ground. "I don't know what you're playing at, but it ends now. There's nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. You can claim you're no killer 'til you're blue in the face, but now that your back's up against the wall, you'll pull that trigger!"

They could see the man's grip tense up, teetering on the edge of trembling. "No. No, there's got to be a better way." Flinching, Foreman lowered the pistol, eyes now looking as if he were in pain. "...I didn't do this," he croaked.

"Theus, I am sick of hearing you keep saying that," muttered Fortunato, the expression on his face a mixture of relief and annoyance. "Ulf, go headbutt him again or something."

"Lower your weapon, Vodacce." The Vesten hefted the jar of dirt, then eyed Foreman thoughtfully. "You have bought yourself some time, Doctor. Use it wisely."

***

To say Fortunato was shocked by his comrade's response would be an understatement. "Are you insane, you bear-skinned buffoon?!" He hissed. "Don't tell me you're actually buying all this nonsense!"

Ulf remained unflustered. "I told you something is not right here."

"You also told me that you didn't trust Foreman, that he'll get inside your head. That's what he's done, Ulf...he's gotten into your head! Need I remind you that he's already killed two people and was going to kill us and -- and what in Legion's name do you think you're doing now?!" The Vodacce directed that last question towards the doctor, punctuating it with a warning thrust of his sword.

"Putting this away, of course," Shrugging, David resumed placing his gun into his satchel. "Makes matters a bit more comfortable, I think."

"What?! No! Give me that..." Fortunato sounded harried as the doctor ignored him. Ulf, take that away from him! Ulf?" The Vesten didn't budge. The Vodacce gritted his teeth. "You're still mad at me at that whole gun-pointing thing, aren't you?"

"Yes." Ulf opened the jar as he crossed over to the table. He stuck a finger in it, drew out a dollop of mud, then carefully smeared it on one of the artifact's shells. "Nothing has changed. The mud is staying on."

"Of all the idiotic..." Fortunato rolled his eyes in frustration. "We don't even know who this man really is! And here he is yammering on about mud. What the hell does mud have to do with murder?!"

"It's doubt, Signore Valeri. A sliver of doubt." Foreman's gaze was bright and intense. "I can't explain everything and I know I seem odd in my actions, but I implore you, follow me and hear me out. Just for a little longer. If I can't convince you then..." The intensity in his eyes wavered slightly, replaced by an emotional weariness. "...then I give you permission to strongarm me back to that cell."

"Well, so long as I have your permission..." More frustration on his face as Fortunato sighed, casting a leery eye towards the Vesten. "If anything happens, I'm blaming you for this, Ulf. Where do we begin?"

"Back to my room, for starters," The doctor rubbed his hands, confidence creeping back into his voice and body language. "There's something I'm rather curious now to check out...."

***

The halls upstairs were thankfully empty as they made their way back to Foreman's room. Opening the door, the bedroom was bare now without the Avalon's belongings save a small splotch of dried blood on the stone floor from where David's sword fell from the wardrobe. And it was straight to the wardrobe that Foreman now made his way to. He threw its door wide open, peering at the back wall with keen interest. "I wonder..."

"You wonder what?" Fortunato eyed the Avalon with skepticism.

"Well, I wonder a few things. Starting with like how Mannheim knew to look right here for my sword. I mean, if I actually killed anyone, the last place I'd want to hide a weapon is in my own room, especially if everyone is going to show up in a matter of moments...aha!" Foreman's eyes lit up with discovery. "Come here...quick!"

"What is it?" Ulf approached first, looking over towards where the doctor was pointing. The Vesten's brows arched in surprise as he realized what was found. He reached out and pressed the faint discolored impression in the wood. The back of the wardrobe slid open.

"You don't see that every day," murmured David, sticking his head into the passage. "Looks like it goes both ways. And that way is towards Tedmund's room..." Gesturing, he stepped fully into the wardrobe without a glance back. "Fetch that lamp on the desk, will you please, Signore Valeri? Don't want to stumble in the dark! Mind your head, Mister Pedersen. It's a bit cramped in here."

"You heard the man, Vodacce," Ulf followed after Foreman, ducking his head.

"But--!" Fortunato bit back a curse and instead went back into the hall, heading towards Tedmund's room in the normal fashion.

Back in the passage, the doctor paused. "I want to thank you, Mister Pedersen, for listening to me back there in the library. I hope you realize that I was never going to fire."

"Make no mistake, Doctor, I do not trust you," Ulf said, an edge of hardness to his voice. "You deal far too much in secrets and I believe you are dangerous."

David nodded, not disputing him, asking quietly "So why do you believe me now?"

"You have the eye of the hunter, but not the heart." The Vesten frowned thoughtfully. "I think you have known death. More than what has happened here. Yet you did not run when your own life was on the line downstairs. And you have faith in the absurd," A faint smile crossed his face. "I was wrong. You are no coward."

"The absurd's all I've got sometimes," A brief chuckle escaped the Avalon. "I think we're here..." He grasped at the wooden wall, feeling around. "I think I've got a crack right here!" With a small grunt, the doctor pushed aside the panel, then pushed open the wardrobe door. Brother Tedmund's Inquisitor robe still laid haphazardly on the bed and a much larger patch of dried blood stained the stone floor. A hunched-over finally stepped out of the wardrobe as David examined its door, a thoughtful frown growing on his face.

"Ulf!" From the opposite end of the room, the door knob rattled against the lock. "Ulf, are you there?!" The muffled hiss of the Vodacce became more frantic. With long strides, Ulf made his way to the door, then paused. He bent down to take a closer look. "Doctor," Ulf waved the Avalon over, pointing towards the lock. Foreman let out a low whistle as he made out the faint smudge of dried blood on the lock. The Vesten frowned as he carefully unlocked the door. Sword drawn, Fortunato nearly stumbled inside as the door swung open.

"You forgot the lamp, Vodacce," grunted Ulf.

Fortunato only glared at him, then turned towards the doctor, whose gaze was now carefully darting between the door and the wardrobe. "So Brother Tedmund did lock himself in his room," murmured David. "The killer must have used that passageway to steal my sword and then ambush Tedmund. Pardon me, Signore Valeri, you're in my way..." David ushered Fortunato off to the side, then cautiously peeked out into the hall. He drew back and adjusted the door, leaving it open slightly. "I think it's becoming clearer...can't believe I let myself get that careless. I was the perfect fool!"

"And just what is becoming clearer?" asked a confused Fortunato.

"Whoever killed Tedmund unlocked this door afterwards, accidentally leaving just a little bit of blood behind on the lock as he opened it. We all assumed it was Tedmund who screamed, but what if what the killer instead?" The doctor tapped his fingers together, brow furrowed in thought. "He opened the door just enough and saw where I was down the hall, enough that I didn't hear anything. He then went back through the wardrobe and screamed, drawing everyone's attention upstairs and giving him time to plant my now-bloodstained sword back in my wardrobe. Right up against the door for it to fall out. And I jumped head first into the trap...," David shook his head, chastizing himself. "Everyone saw me here first as I tried to save Brother Tedmund. But..." He gestured back towards the wardrobe. "...the killer wasn't able to shut the wardrobe back all the way in his escape."

"You were in the hall?" Fortunato frowned.

"I did say I was exploring the keep beforehand, Signore Valeri..." Foreman swiftly strode back out into and down the hall. Ulf and Fortunato rushed to keep up with him. The Avalon stopped by another door down a ways. "...right here specifically. Trying to get inside Baron Adelbert's room."

"The Baron's room?" Ulf frowned. "Why?"

"I wanted to examine his body again," David reached into his pocket. "Grace didn't tell you that?"

"She didn't tell us anything...she looked rather upset." Fortunato matched the Vesten's frown. "Just what happened in the dungeon, Doctor?"

"Ah, upset. Yes..." Foreman stiffened, looking a touch disconcerted as he finally pulled out the twisted hairpin. "That might be because of how I got my hands on this." He crouched down and started fiddling with the lock.

Fortunato's frown deepened. "And you got that how exactly?"

"It's no good. The metal's all bent out of shape now," muttered Foreman. "Might take a while to see if that secret passage reaches the Baron's room or--"

*WHUMP!* The door suddenly gave way to a heavy Vesten boot.

"--not." David blinked, popping back to his feet. "Of course, there's something to be said about the application of blunt force."

"It worked on you," muttered Ulf. "Remember that, Doctor."

"Yes," Reflexively, Foreman rubbed his head, giving the Vesten a healthy nod of respect. He quickly stepped into the room. In a few scant moments, he came right back out with a troubled look. "No body. Where is it?"

"You're sure the Baron is actually dead?" Fortunato asked with a slight smirk.

"As dead as Brother Tedmund. Whose room was locked up as well afterwards," The doctor frowned. "So where are their corpses now? You think you'd want them ready to return to the mainland for a proper burial."

"Herr Mannheim would know. He said he was taking care of the Baron's body, did he not?" The Vesten folded his arms across his chest.

"Mannheim..." David echoed. His eyes went wide as he rushed back to Tedmund's room. "...Mannheim who was the first to the wardrobe after I noticed it was ajar. Mannheim who distracted us with Tedmund's Inquisitor robe so we didn't look deeper in it."

"Foreman, what the hell are you getting at?" Fortunato looked confused again as the Avalon returned to the wardrobe.

"And Mannheim who knew exactly where to look for the murder weapon. He was in on the killings all along!" The doctor's voice came the darkened passage. "Do bring that lamp along this time, Signore Valeri. It's time to see how deep this rabbit hole goes!"

***

"Secret entrances into every bedroom," From behind them, neither David nor Fortunato could see Ulf's grim expression. "I wonder if the Baron ever knew?"

"A family like the Von Gunthers, there's bound to be a few secrets lost along the way. But someone found this one," The Avalon kept his voice low. "Careful. Feels like we're coming upon some sort of staircase leading back downwards. Raise that lamp a bit, please, Signore Valeri."

"About time," muttered Fortunato, his free hand carefully resting on the hilt of his sword just in case. "Be ready for anything."

The staircase eventually came to an end, leading to what appeared to be just a wall. The doctor pressed his ear against it, listening for anything behind as he felt around for a handle or latch. He gripped hold of something and nodded to the Vodacce, then carefully pushed. The trio crept into a room, finding it filled with various dried goods and other storage.

"What is this?" Fortunato scanned their surroundings. "Some sort of pantry?"

"Aye," nodded Foreman, whispering. "The door is just a ways off. If I recall things correctly, that means the kitchen will then be straight ahead and beyond that is a hall leading towards Mannheim's and the other servants' quarters."

"You have been exploring," murmured the Vesten, clearly impressed.

"Not nearly enough if I missed that passage," David sighed, shaking his head as he went over to the pantry door. He opened it...

...and came face to face with a suddenly shocked Father Sigurd, plum dropping from his hand with a squishy splut. Before he could scream, Ulf quickly yanked him into the pantry with David immediately shutting the door.

"Muh--muh--!" The priest's mouth gasped and puffed like a fish out of water. "Murderer! HELP!" Sigurd blinked, finally noticing Ulf and Fortunato. A small hiccup of terror escaped him. "Theus, you're all in this together...I knew it! And Lady MacKenzie must be in on this too! She's out distracting Herr Mannheim while you go kill the rest of us! HELP! HE--"

*WHUMP!*

Trying his best not to smile, Fortunato made sure the Vendel's unconscious body was out of the way. "Thank you, Ulf. Diplomacy saves the day yet ag--" His eyes suddenly widened in alarm. "Grace!"

"She said she was going outside," The Vesten met Fortunato's gaze with a cold look of realization. "She did not have her claymore with her."

"Mannheim said he'd show Grace where he found the artifact once the rain stopped," The doctor grimaced as he reached for the door. "We haven't a moment to lose!"

Chapter Text

A strangled groan escaped the Highlander as she slowly became aware of the sharp pain on the back of her head. She coughed and gagged, the air dank and reeking sickly sweet, like of rotted apples. Grace blinked, trying to focus her eyes. She appeared to be in some sort of cavern. She could hear the sound of running water somewhere nearby. Torchlight flickered dimly, making shadows dance around the rocks and crevasses along the wall. As she struggled to move, Grace found to her anger that she couldn't, arms bound at her side by what looked to be thick rope and her legs in similar crisis. She drew in a sharp gasp, trying to fight the rising panic in her chest as she realized the faint tingle in her thumb had turned into an all-out frantic throb.

"You are awake," The voice almost sounded concerned. "Good. I was afraid I may have struck too hard. I do not have the finesse of your Vesten companion."

"Mannheim...," breathed Grace, recognizing who spoke. It all came back to her -- storming out of the keep after her altercation with the imprisoned Doctor Foreman and Mannheim catching up to her outside, asking her if it was a good time to show her where the artifact was found. And, like a bumbling amateur, she had agreed -- alone, unarmed and distracted. She didn't see the rock the Eisen had until it was too late. "What in Legion's name is the meanin' o' all this?!"

"This is where everything begins, Lady MacKenzie." Grace heard the crunch of gravel close by. With a grunt, she attempted to twist her body, both to face Mannheim and to try to loosen her bonds. She remained stubbornly in place, unable to even move with her restraints as heavy and as unyielding as iron. "This is the dawning of a new age!"

"Theus, spare me from another madman who talks in riddles," The Highlander gritted her teeth in irritation. "Disgustin'. I should have known Foreman was workin' for someone on the inside all along." Her thumb continued to throb almost painfully. "You dishonoured the Baron! Was his estate really worth killin' for? What's on this isle?!"

"Patience, Lady MacKenzie. All will be revealed soon enough," The Eisen chuckled softly, stepping into view. He cocked his head, peering down at Grace with a faint smirk. "Foreman is not one of ours. His arrival was most unexpected. A dangerous loose end." Mannheim's smirk widened. "Fortunately, he made for the perfect diversion. Such a strange and suspicious man, don't you think? We almost feel pity for him."

"No..." Grace felt her heart sank at the confirmation of David's innocence. Once again, she strained at her bindings. They refused to budge, instead feeling even tighter. "Who are you workin' for?"

"'Working for'? That sounds so petty and mundane. No, we serve a greater purpose now, Lady MacKenzie," Mannheim straightened himself up, casting his gaze now up and past the Highlander...

...and suddenly something yanked Grace high into the air, twisting her upside down. She shrieked before she could stop herself. As Grace continued to twist and sway in mid-air, she finally realized that it wasn't ropes that were binding her. Then she got a good look at what exactly had entrapped her and she screamed again. It was yellowish-white, like the sickly colour of pus and over thirty feet high and wide, nearly taking up half the height of the cavern. It flexed sinewy vines, all thick as a man's torso and some covered in sharp thorns as they scraped against the ceiling of the cavern. As the thing pulled her closer, much to the woman's ever-growing horror, she saw the freshly shredded corpses of Baron Adelbert and Brother Tedmund strewn among the carcasses of boars at the base of its trunk.

"Fleshling..." Grace could hear the whisper in the back of her mind, sharp and sibilant like the wind whipping through long grass.

"What...what IS that?!" It was all Grace could do to hold herself together, the fear and the rush of blood to her head nearly overwhelming her. She gagged, the stench of decay hanging heavy and damp in the air.

"The future of Theah, Lady MacKenzie," Mannheim spoke as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Behold...the Arctius!"

"Long have we slept, fleshling. Long have we waited...," The monstrosity rasped, still echoing harshly in Grace's mind. "The fools of Syrne have all fallen into dust. The time of the flesh is no more. Now is the time for the Arctius to rise!"

"Isn't it glorious, Lady MacKenzie?" The Eisen's hushed tones beheld genuine reverence and awe. "Lost in a fog, I was, before he found me. Before the Arctius..." Mannheim paused, shuddering. "Given to the Arctius. All he wanted was a little blood! So generous, he was. And now I have served them both well. Now I will get Eisen and the Arctius will get the rest!"

"Blood?!" Grace looked aghast, not liking the sound of that at all. "Mannheim, what the hell are you sayin'?!"

The Arctius answered instead. "We are growing in strength." It tightened its grip around Grace, eliciting a small cry from her. "But we must have more flesh!"

"Yes, more flesh," Mannheim nodded eagerly as the Arctius lowered Grace. He stepped back and picked an object up, setting it on a nearby rock. "And what better way to get it than an Explorer leading in her trusting expedition?"

Grace's eyes widened as she recognized the object. No longer open as four shells, it was now a whole sphere, still ashen-white and covered in spines -- exactly like the artifact back in the keep. "Mannheim!" she gasped. "Mannheim, that thing is goin' to betray an' destroy you! It's goin' to destroy all o' us! Can't you see it?!"

"It only hurts for a little while, Lady MacKenzie," Mannheim unbuttoned his jacket, exposing his chest. There, under his very skin, the root mass squirmed and spread like worms burrowing in the mud. "But then you will see matters much more clearly...."

Now at eye level to the helpless woman, the seed pod suddenly started to quiver and crack.

***
Despite the urgency, Ulf insisted on grabbing his bow and quiver full of arrows before he and the others began their search for Grace. Fortunato, meanwhile, insisted on leaving the unconscious priest in the pantry, draped over a few sacks of flour in an undignified heap once the secret passage was safely shut. The Avalon doctor uttered not a word, the anxious expression on his face saying enough for all three of them as they finally made their way outside.

Fortunato gestured for David to give Ulf room as he looked for any sign of Grace's trail. As much as the Vodacce chided him for his "savage ways", he knew hunting outdoors was the Vesten's bailiwick. Fortunato's eyes drifted back to Foreman. The Avalon kept a respectful distance as he observed Ulf at work, following the Vesten's gaze as carefully as possible in case anything was missed.

"So, just what is your story if you're not a freelance digger then, Doctor?" Fortunato asked in hushed tones.

"Why do I have to have a story, Signore Valeri?" shrugged David. "I really am just a doctor and a botanist -- who just got swept up in the wrong place at the wrong time when I tried to be a bit more ambitious than usual."

"Uh-huh." The Vodacce sounded less than convinced. "And you also just happen to talk about secret passages and snooping around as if they were everyday occurrences for you. Not to mention your little comment earlier about knowing a little bit of Ulf's and my time with the Society," Fortunato paused, eyes widening slightly as an idea struck him. "Are you one of Bors MacAllister's men?"

"Queen Elaine's 'Black Knight'?" Foreman looked over at the Vodacce with one brow arched in surprise. Then a faint smile popped up on the man's face. "Do you really think that I would admit to something like that even if it were true?"

"Well, are you?!"

"Vodacce," Ulf suddenly barked, interrupting. Fortunato and David turned to see the Vesten gesturing towards a patch of scrub-grass, the stalks all bent and disturbed. Nearby was a rock that appeared to have been pried out of the dirt and then tossed aside. More ominously, where there had been two sets of footprints, there was now only one.

"No boars?" Even as he asked, by the tone of Fortunato's voice he already knew the answer, but the Vodacce had to be certain.

"No boars," grimaced the Vesten. His eyes narrowed at the single set of footprints. "Mannheim is weighed down with something here. Look...he goes deeper into the mud with each passing step."

"Grace," breathed David. He picked up the rock, then pulled off a couple strands of ash blonde hair caught on one of its jagged edges. "He's got her."

Ulf just nodded, his grimace growing deeper. "The Eisen is not even trying to hide his tracks anymore. Either he did not expect to be uncovered -- or he did not care."

"We've got to hurry. Whatever Mannheim is up to, it can't be anything good. If Grace is still alive--" Fortunato stopped that statement, instead drawing out his sword. "Ulf, tell me you're able to track which way he went."

The Vesten said nothing as he headed north. The Vodacce and the Avalon exchanged a worried look before they followed after him. After some time, the terrain became more rocky as they got closer to the cliff's edge of the isle. The distinct salt tang of the Trade Sea in the air got stronger as waves crashed against the northern shore. Mud gave way to even more rock, causing Ulf to pause as he tried to determine which way Mannheim's trail went. A small grunt of frustration escaped the Vesten as he closely scanned the ground.

"Don't tell me you lost his trail?!" Fortunato groaned as he approached Ulf.

"Out of my way, Vodacce," muttered the Vesten. "You are not help--"

"Do you hear that?" Ulf and Fortunato looked over to see David halt. The Avalon doctor appeared to tense, straining to listen in on something. Suddenly, the man took off running. Foreman's burst of speed nearly caught Fortunato and Ulf off-guard, but they managed to keep up with his long strides.

"Foreman, what the hell has gotten into you?" exclaimed the Vodacce as he bit back a pant.

"Shh!" The Avalon hissed, sharp and urgent. He paused in mid-stride, craning his head quickly around. "Just listen!"

Fortunato opened his mouth to deliver a sarcastic retort, but it died in his throat as he finally made out what caught the doctor's attention. Faint at first, it was the piercing scream of a woman. The Vodacce's blood ran cold as he not only recognized it as Grace's, but that he realized there was more than just fear in that scream. "...Theus..." Fortunato's eyes widened in alarm as he frantically looked around the area. "I can't see them...where is it coming from?!"

Ulf had already unslung his bow from his shoulder and notched an arrow to be at the ready. The Vesten's gaze remained hard and steady as he scanned the terrain. From where he stood, David scoured around as well, his expression clearly torn about trying to remain calm and careful in the face of pressing urgency. Another shrill cry rang out, louder and more agonizing than before and all the men's eyes were drawn towards one spot. There, just barely jutting out from a cluster of dead thorn bushes, was a crack in the earth.

The doctor approached it first, easily pushing aside the bushes to reveal a shadowy fissure cutting deep and wide enough for a man to enter. He took a step to make his way down, but the Vodacce grabbed his arm and shook his head. "No. This is what we do," whispered Fortunato. "Ulf, take point. Then you're behind me, Doctor, If it looks like we're in over our heads, then you need to run back to the keep and warn everyone!"

"Where everyone thinks I'm a murderer?" David looked at Fortunato incredulously. "Not a chance, Signore Valeri. Not if Grace is injured down there! She's going to need me and you're going to need me," His eyes narrowed in determination. "That's what I do."

"He is right, Vodacce," A brief flicker of worry crossed Ulf's face. "I can no longer hear Grace. We need to move now!"

The trio hurriedly descended into the rocky depths without another word. Soon swallowed up by the darkness, the men strained every sense they possessed to make their way forward without stumbling. Eventually, their eyes acclimated, and soon they all thought they could make out dim light flickering ahead. They turned the corner...

...and as the cavern opened up before them, Ulf, Fortunato and David beheld a sight that only should have been left to the whispers of forgotten nightmares. Grace, upside-down and suspended in mid-air by the tendrils of a giant, unholy creature that could have easily been one of the spawn of Legion. Underneath, the thorny seed pod had hatched and with it, the milky-white sapling had already begun to bury itself into the Highlander's gut. The young woman moaned inaudibly. Nearby, Mannheim stood, watching it all stoically.

Until the boot of Fortunato nudged a small chunk of limestone, sending it skittering. The Eisen's head suddenly snapped towards the sound. Spying the men, Mannheim cocked his head in slight surprise. But then he only smiled coldly as the free vines of the creature raised themselves menacingly for the attack.

"You are too late, gentlemen...the Highlander is ours!"

Chapter Text

"Yes, fools...you are too late!  Too late to--urk!"  The arrow now embedded in Mannheim's eye cut his gloating short, dropping him to the cavern floor.  In the span of seconds, Ulf let three more arrows fly.  One bounced uselessly off the thick trunk of the behemoth, but the other two found their marks, sinking deep into the vine imprisoning Grace.  Unfortunately, though it drooped, it still stubbornly clung to its prize.  A deafening inhuman screech shattered the silence.  David shrank back, blocking his ears, but the creature's bonechilling scream of anger still filled his mind.

"By the Prophets!"  The look of horror on Fortunato's face showed that he was just as affected by the screech as the Avalon.  "Doctor, what the hell IS that thing?!"

"I wish I could tell you, Signore Valeri,"  Foreman's voice cracked in both awe and trepidation as he looked up at the creature.  "Whatever it is though, I think Mister Pedersen just made it madder!"

"I told you this was your fault, Ulf," muttered the Swordsman.  The Vesten ignored him, firing off another arrow that glanced off a thrashing vine.  Fortunato shook his head.  "We can't just keep--"

"Incoming!" cried David.  One of the longer vines suddenly tore down a chunk of stalactite and flung it towards them.  As the men dove for cover, the chunk slammed against the cavern wall, exploding in a shower of rocky shrapnel.

"You are just gnats to the Arctius, fleshlings!"  It hissed sharply through their minds, like the wind whipping dead leaves into a frenzy. "It is useless to even fight!"

"Vodacce," said Ulf through gritted teeth.  "Take the doctor and cut Grace down.  You two need to get her away from that demon.  I will cover you."

"Those vines are going to tear us apart as soon as we step out into there!"  Fortunato shook his head in disbelief.

"Maybe...,"  David's gaze darted between the whole of the Arctius and the rest of the cavern.  He gripped the strap of his satchel protectively.  "...maybe not.  When we run, just follow my lead.  Mister Pedersen, are you ready?"

"By your mark, Doctor," grunted the Vesten as he readied another arrow.

Foreman tensed into a slight crouch, then took off running as he just hissed one word:  "Now!"

***

Even though he should have expected it, the Avalon doctor's speed still caught Fortunato off guard.  As Ulf fired his bow, the Vodacce nearly stumbled, taking off running after Foreman.  Instinct begged Fortunato to flee to the back wall of the cavern as fast as he could, but he forced himself to stick to the doctor's erratic path.  "He moves without sense"  Ulf's comments from earlier echoed in the Vodacce scholar's head before being drowned out by another horrifying shriek of the Arctius.  Its vines continued to flail and thrash wildly.  One free vine tore off another stalactite and flung it mightily at the back wall.  Foreman paused and Fortunato followed his lead.  If the two men had made a direct run, they would have been caught in the devastating impact.  Fortunato exhaled the breath he didn't know he had been holding, still terrified that somehow, the monster would be able to read his or the doctor's thoughts.

As if in rebuttal, a screech of frustration pierced their minds.  Fortunato saw the Avalon flinch at the sound, shaking his head desperately as if to empty it from his very skull.  The Vodacce drew in a ragged intake of air, sharing similar discomforts.  He grimaced.  The two men had cleared about three-fourths the distance to the imprisoned Grace.  Far back from where they came was the now-distant twang from Ulf's bow.  They could see the vile seedling still inching its way out of the pod and deeper into her belly.  Worse still, three thick vines slowly weaved back and forth in front of her like menacing vipers waiting to strike.  The doctor looked up at the writhing mass of thorny tentacles, then back towards Grace.  His jaw clenched as he readied to run again.

"Wait!" hissed Fortunato as he grabbed Foreman's shoulder.  He gestured at the cavern floor.  The Avalon frowned in confusion, but then he saw and heard what the Vodacce had caught first.  Nearly swallowed up by the shadows was a deep crack, almost as wide as two men's girths side by side.  They could make out the sound of water lapping against rock.  David nodded his thanks, then carefully vaulted over the crevasse.  Fortunato was half a step behind.  "That thing isn't throwing any more rocks at us, Doctor," whispered the uneasy Vodacce.  "I don't like it."

"The Arctius knows we have to come to it," muttered Foreman.  His run had now dropped to a cautious crawl.  "It can afford to wait."

"I was afraid you were going to say that."  The Vodacce groaned.  "Where did it come from?  How did it survive down here?"

"Probably from a time long before man ever walked Theah, I fear.  As for surviving, who can say?  I've got a few theories,"  David bit back a cough as the scent of dank vegetation now hit his nostrils.  He shook his head as his eyes fell upon the shredded corpses of man and boar.

"Theus, it's Syrneth,"  Fortunato cast a wary eye at the alert vines, coiling and uncoiling in readiness.  An involuntary shudder went through him as he wondered how the Arctius could sense them nearing.  "If you have any theories on how to take this creature down, I'm all ears!"

"Unfortunately, the only idea I've got right now would probably kill us as well,"  The doctor murmured, reflexively gripping the strap of his satchel.  Fortunato couldn't tell if he was joking or not.  "And, since that would defeat the entire purpose of rescuing, I'd really rather hold off on it if at all possible."

"So many little whispers, fleshlings!  Are you whimpering to your god?"  A high-pitched series of chuffing sounds like the rustling of branches now escaped from the monstrosity.  With a sickening feeling, Fortunato realized that this was how the Arctius laughed.  "Let us hear your prayers...let us hear your screams!"

"I don't know how effective my blade will be, Doctor.  I might be able to get through one, maybe two vines--!"  Fortunato raised his sword, shooting a worried glance between it and the sinewy tentacles.  "If we can't make it to Grace in time..."  The Vodacce's voice trailed off.  The grim look on both men's face made it all too clear that some fears were better left unspoken.

***

Ulf grunted, lowering his bow.  The Vesten had hoped his cover fire would provide enough of a distraction for Foreman and the Vodacce to get to Grace and cut her down, but after the first couple of arrows, the abomination maddeningly ignored him in favor of focusing on the others.  He gritted his teeth in anger.  Plants were not supposed to move!  And yet here was this demon, this "Arctius", its massive tentacles whipping in frenzy like those of the legendary Kraken.  And like that sea monster of old, Ulf's arrows seemed to do little to hurt it.  Or, worse still, it was intelligent enough to figure out that he wasn't the actual threat.  At least the creature appeared to have no sort of normal sight as the doctor's irregular running had initially thrown its tracking off.  The Avalon was indeed a very clever man, Ulf noted, with a level of keen experience that far surpassed any ordinary scholar.  But all the cleverness in the world still didn't change the fact that the two men out there had only one sword to go up against that towering, writhing nightmare.

Ulf glared in impotence at his diminished supply of arrows.  For all the needling he gave him, Ulf knew full well of the Vodacce's deadly skill with the blade.  But deep in his heart, the Vesten feared that the vines of the Arctius would be able to strike faster and harder.  If Doctor Foreman and Fortunato got caught by them, then all hope of saving Grace from that unholy terror would be lost.  He let go of his bow finally, then drew Rabbitslayer out from its sheath.  By itself, the long hunting knife probably stood less of a chance than Ulf's arrows.  With a cold gaze, Ulf looked over the Arctius out in the cavern.  Shadows danced in flickering torchlight as the Arctius hissed, its savage glee echoing in the back of their minds in mockery.  Ulf's eyes narrowed sharply as he pulled himself up to his full height.  It was clear that the Arctius did not see them as any sort of danger to it.

A low growl escaped Ulf.  He would soon make the bestial plant regret that.

***

Fortunato swallowed, wiping his now-sweat covered palms on his trouser leg.  If he and the doctor didn't make a move now, then the spawn of the Arctius would finish embedding itself into Grace and she would be elevated high out of their grasps.  The Vodacce bit the inside of  his lip, frantically trying to work out the best approach of attack.  He had narrowed down his best choices  to either where the Arctius' vines began to fork or where Ulf's arrows had already pierced the monster.  A silent prayer was on the Swordsman's lips that Foreman would be able to pull Grace away and free her if the thick grip of the Arctius showed any sign of loosening.

With unnatural speed, two vines suddenly lashed out at Fortunato.  On instinct, the Vodacce reacted, pivoting his body and bringing his blade up to parry.  He pushed back the attack, but then the third thorny vine lunged, clipping the side of Fortunato's sword arm and causing him to cry out in pain.

"Valeri!"  Foreman immediately took a step forward but the Vodacce quickly waved him off, not wanting the vines to exploit an opportunity to get between him and David.

"I'm alright!"  Fortunato hoped he sounded convincing, but out of the corner of his eye he could see the blood welling up, staining through his newly torn sleeve.  A sudden fear rushed through the Swordsman's mind, desperately praying now that there was no unknown poison lurking in the thorns of the Arctius to make matters worse.  Fortunato tightened his grip on his sword and shifted his position again.  His blade weaved back and forth in a wall of steel, a trademark of the Durchsetzungburg school.  The Vodacce's wound throbbed painfully with the effort of keeping the vines at bay.  At this point Fortunato didn't know if the plant creature was stymied by his defense or was just toying with him.  Either way, he felt helpless, locked in a stalemate he dared not falter in while the spawn of the Arctius continued its assault into Grace.

"DEMON!"  Ulf's bellow echoed through the cavern.  "TASTE THE FURY OF THE VESTENMANNAVNJAR AND KNOW YOUR DEATH!"

And then a streak of fire suddenly slammed into the trunk of the Arctius.  

***

The howl that erupted from the Arctius was indescribable.   

Raw and primal, the initial screech it had let out during Ulf's first volley of arrows was that of mere annoyance compared to this -- a maddening howl of sheer pain and shock any intelligent being ever burned by fire would know.  The air, already dank and foul, now reeked with a cross of scorched peat and swamp gas.  Scowling, Ulf thrust the torch again at the Arctius and watched with grim satisfaction at the vines shuddering and trying to recoil from the flame he carried.  The Vesten had the faint hope that the abomination would catch fire, but the cavern air was far too damp.  And, no doubt, the make-up of the Arctius itself was similar to green wood.  There would be no sudden bonfire to help their plight.

"To the Abyss with you, demon!" snarled Ulf as he lashed out with Rabbitslayer, cutting across the most recent burn mark on the closest tendril.

At the far end of the cavern, David could only watch in awe at the attack of the Vesten.  His jaw dropped a little.  He breathed  "I can't tell if that's insane or bloody brilliant..."

"Foreman, MOVE!"  Fortunato was already rushing forward, hacking away at the retracting vines.  "Grace...go for Grace!  We don't have much time!"

Fortunato's bark spurred the Avalon to action.  Ignoring the screams of the creature, David ducked past a writhing vine and wrapped his arms around Grace's upper half.  The Highlander mewled in pain, squirming a little in his grasp, but David held on, pulling with all the might his lank frame could muster.  "We're here, Grace...just hold on!"  The Vodacce brought his sword to bear one more time with another deep slash and finally the vine loosened its hold on the Explorer enough for the doctor to pull her free.  Foreman carefully scrambled backwards a few steps, trying to maintain his hold on Grace while getting out of range from the vines.

The Arctius shrieked with rage.  Two vines whipped towards Ulf and, though he managed to dodge the first, the other succeeded in knocking the torch from his hand.  With a heavy THUD, it then pounded the flames down to embers.  Ulf barely had time to register it before a smaller tendril lashed out and ripped across his chest.  Meanwhile, across the cavern, Fortunato had resumed his parrying stance.  "Can you run with her, Doctor?"

"I can manage, Signore Valeri," grunted Foreman.  "Just keep yourself safe!"  

Fortunato sprinted to follow, nearly stumbling over the rocks as he dodged a tripping vine.  He glanced over worriedly to see David pausing to catch his breath and cradling Grace in his arms.  The young woman's skin was ashen and her grey eyes were now glassy and unfocused.  Her breath came in shallow gasps.  "Theus!"  Fortunato's eyes fell upon the seedling, now free from its pod, still embedding itself into Grace.  Its bulbous root mass quivered and curled in anticipation of sinking into flesh.  With a look of horror, Fortunato suddenly grabbed the seedling.

"Don't--!"

But before David could finish, the Vodacce had already sliced the root mass off.

Fortunato didn't know whose scream of agony was louder, the Arctius' or Grace's.

"Valeri, you IDIOT!"  The white-hot anger on the doctor's face was a look Fortunato never thought the Avalon could have been capable of.  "Do you know what you just did?!"

"I was...  That thing...I was trying to get that thing out of Grace!" Fortunato still held onto the tendril, now trying to flail out of his hand.  Tiny pinpricks poked the palm of his hand, like brushing up against a nettle.  The Highlander thrashed in David's arms as another high-pitched cry of anguish escaped her.

"That 'thing' was alive, Valeri!" hissed David.  "I could have risked getting it out of Grace once we were clear of this cavern, but now that you've wounded it, its death throes are going to tear apart her insides!"  He shook his head.  "And that means I've got to get it out of her NOW!"

"I panicked,"  Fortunato swallowed.  In the distance, he could Ulf's roars of rage, still locked in battle with the monster.  That was something at least.  "I didn't know!"

"Back of the cavern.  We've got to get as far away from the Arctius and pray it doesn't start throwing rocks again."  Foreman spoke rapidly.  "We can't let it get inside her...keep holding onto that seedling, Valeri.  At least until we can set Grace down.  I think I've got something that might help, but as soon as I start removing it, I need you to hold Grace steady."  The doctor's cold gaze bore into Fortunato.  "Can you do this?"

"Yes," nodded the Vodacce.  "I'm sorry."

"I know,"  David's tone was less harsh, though the dim light of the last flickering torch in the cavern made his face look grim.  "But we have--"

"FLESHLINGS!"  The screech of the plant monstrosity cut the Avalon off.  "YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE THE ARCTIUS!"

"Shut UP, demon!  You--OOF!"  Ulf was suddenly interrupted by a thick vine slamming into him, knocking him to the rocky floor.  Another sick, chuffing laugh erupted from the Arctius.

"ENOUGH OF YOUR WORDS, FLESHLINGS!  WE KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES.  YOUR PITIFUL STRUGGLES AGAINST US WERE AMUSING.  BUT NOW...NOW YOU FIGHT ON OUR TERMS!"

One vine of the Arctius reached for the last torch.  With one cracking whip, the flame was extinguished -- and the cavern was plunged into total darkness.

Chapter Text

"Bollocks!"

The sharp hiss from David carrying that usually mild oath summed up the dire gravity of the situation perfectly.

Fortunato immediately froze, his eyes frantically blinking to try to acclimate to the sudden darkness.  Faint whimpering escaped Grace.  The Vodacce grunted, catching himself in time from losing his footing on a loose piece of rock.  He awkwardly sheathed his blade for better balance.  "Foreman..." he breathed.

"This changes nothing, Valeri,"  The doctor quickly spoke, though his movement, too, had slowed to a crawl.  "Back of the cavern just like I said.  Just need to find a flat surface to work on...."

"But--!"  Fortunato snapped his protesting jaw shut.  Was the Avalon mad?  He had to be if he was still insisting he could tend to Grace even in the dark.  The tendril suddenly twitched, still trying to free itself from the Vodacce's grasp.  Fortunato winced, wondering now if Foreman's words were meant more to comfort Grace rather than any stubborn braggado.  He glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes finally making out the outline of the monster's thick swaying vines -- and further still, the edge of the cavern's entrance, its offer of escape dimming as much as the light outside continued to fade.  A cold knot bunched up in Fortunato's belly as he realized he couldn't hear any trace of Ulf.

"Flesh always seeks flesh, yes..."  The sick, mocking hissing of the Arctius echoed through their minds.  "Such a weakness, fleshlings.  Loosen your burden and perhaps you'll stand a chance of esca--"

"I can no longer see how ugly you are, demon!"  Ulf's taunting bellow cut through the shadows.  "This is a good thing!"

The Arctius suddenly screeched in pain.  David and Fortunato could hear the heavy thud of a massive vine as it slammed against the rocks below in order to try and squash the irritant.  "Thank Theus," breathed Fortunato, shaking his head a little in relief.

"Bastard's luck, that one," murmured Foreman.  His voice, too, held relief.  "The best kind to have right now."  The Avalon paused and Fortunato could hear his boot scrape against a rock.  "This is probably the flattest surface we have to work with, Signore Valeri.  Help me guide Grace down."

At the doctor's very words, the squirming tendril renewed its efforts to free itself from Fortunato's grasp, but the Vodacce only clenched his grip tighter as he assisted the Avalon in setting Grace down.   "Right," David opened his satchel.  "Just a few things I need to start.  Hold Grace steady."  The Vodacce could hear the sound of rummaging and then the clink of metal against glass.  Whatever he was doing, the darkness seemed to not impair Foreman's preparations.

 "For..."  Both David and Fortunato's eyes immediately darted towards the young woman, trying to speak.  A gurgle escaped her lips.  "...Fortunato..."

"Shh, don't say anything, Grace.  Save your strength."  Fortunato's mouth felt dry.  "Doctor Foreman will tend to your wound and--"

"...it's in my head!  Screamin'..."  The Highlander gasped, shuddering.  Fortunato felt Grace's hands brush against his, then suddenly they were clamped down on his own, trying to pry it off the embedded seedling.  "...it wants...wants me to--"

"Grace?  No!"  Fortunato couldn't believe how strong the woman's hands were as they nearly tore his grasp free from the tendril.  He frantically renewed his grip.  Grace's nails clawed painfully against his hands.  "Grace, you need to fight it!  Doctor, hurry -- please!"

"On it..."  The Vodacce suddenly felt a third hand moving underneath his.  "Now, Valeri!  Hold Grace's hands back!"

"Foreman, what are you doing?"  Fortunato held the now-screeching Highlander down, praying that in her wild thrashing Grace wouldn't hurt herself even worse.

"I remember reading an article about how the natives deal with a certain giant parasitic worm if it infests an unfortunate soul down in the tropical island of Marcina,"  David began, biting back a low grunt of effort.  "They jam a skewer through it and try to twist it out like it was on a spindle."

"Theus, forget I asked,"  grimaced Fortunato.  He looked down at Grace, her face an agonizing mask again the dark alien struggle from within.  "I just hope it works."

"Aye,"  David nodded, clenching his jaw.  For a moment, a brief flicker of apprehension darted in his eyes.  "So do I."

+++++

Ulf snarled, barely pulling himself out of the way in time from a crushing vine.  Unfortunately for the Vesten, the Arctius' attack had been a two-pronged feint.  Another vine overhead smashed against the ceiling of the cavern, sending down a shower of rock and rubble.  Ulf spat out a curse in anger and in pain as a chunk of stone fell against his back.  He stumbled off to the side as best as he could, trying to regain his footing in the dark.

Grace's screams had echoed hollowly through the Vesten's ears, but of David and Forunato, Ulf couldn't be sure if he could hear them or not.  At best, they had been slowed down by the sudden darkness and were doing their best to carefully pick their way to escape.  At worst...

Ulf immediately shook himself away from those thoughts.  If that was the case, then the best way to mourn the Vodacce was to avenge him.

"I thought you were a demon.  I was wrong,"  grunted Ulf.  He dived and slashed out at another thick vine with Rabbitslayer, wondering desperately if his strikes were having any detrimental effect on the plant creature at all.  "You are nothing more than a big weed!"  

The Arctius only laughed in its own disgusting way like tree branches scratching against a window.  "Pitiful fleshling..." Another hissing chuckle clawed at the back of Ulf's skull.  "So helpless without the light!  But we were born in the dark -- we THRIVE in the dark!"  A vine snapped against Ulf's torso, causing the Vesten to fall back against the rocky floor.  He rolled out of the way, back towards the entrance of the cavern, but the Arctius chose not to press the attack.  Ulf kipped up to his feet, glaring back into the shadows.  His thighs were bleeding from a few shallow cuts, but he didn't care.  He charged in again, barely ducking under one thrashing branch and grabbing a smaller one to slash deeply into it.

"You are firewood, weed!" snarled the Vesten as the vine of the Arctius writhed in his grasp.

"No, fleshling,"</i> screeched the plant beast.  "We are just very patient..."

And far off in the dark, Ulf thought he could hear the clatter of gravel.

+++++

"So much hate --ungh!  Hunger..."  Grace whimpered, shuddering.  Her eyes nearly rolled all the way back in their sockets .  "Can't...can't shut it OUT!  Forcin' me to...to--!"  The Highlander suddenly snapped her jaw sharply towards Fortunato's leg, barely stopping herself from injuring the surprised Vodacce just in time .  "JUST KILL ME!"

"NO!"  Fortunato frantically shook his head.  "Grace, Grace, don't say that!  The doctor's getting that thing out of you and--"

"Only if it comes to it," said a somber David, interrupting.

"Foreman!"

"Now is not the time to insult Grace's intelligence, Valeri,"  Looking back towards Grace, David continued his painstaking task of twisting the skewer.  Bit by agonizing bit, the tendril was indeed getting drawn out.  His words grew less cold.  "But I swear to you both, one way or the other, Grace will be freed from this creature's grip!"

"But..."  Again, Fortunato forced himself to shut up.  He could feel his cheeks grow hot in frustration and impotent anger.  The doctor was right, of course.  If Foreman failed in removing the seedling from Grace and it took her over, they would have to put her out of her misery quickly before it was too late.  But it didn't help the Vodacce swordsman's mood that, if it wasn't for his hasty action in slicing the root mass off, Grace wouldn't have been placed in this more immediate crisis.  Fortunato bit back a worried sigh and tried to give Grace his most reassuring smile.

Suddenly, Fortunato was grabbed from behind.  He yelped in shock as he felt himself torn away from Grace and flung back hard against the cavern floor.  "What the...Valeri?  Valeri!"  Fortunato could hear David shout in alarm.  Groggily, the Vodacce struggled to rise.  His first terrifying thought was that, somehow, the vines of the Arctius finally found a way to reach the far end of the cavern where he, Foreman and Grace were.

Then he heard the doctor yell again, this time much more frantically.  As he finally got back to his feet, Fortunato's eyes widened in shock as he saw a humanoid shape throttling David.  With a hoarse cry, Fortunato drew out his sword and rushed back over to pull the attacker off the Avalon.  He slammed his pommel down hard on the assailant's shoulder, trying to break his hold on David's throat.  The figure turned his head and Fortunato saw the arrow that was still embedded deep in his eye socket.

"Mannheim...," breathed the Vodacce, recognizing in horror just who was attacking Foreman.  "Get off him!"

The Eisen stayed mute, even after Fortunato slashed his blade across his back, but he did let go of David.  Fortunato then tried to position himself to get in front of the doctor in time, but Mannheim spun back on his heel, scattering gravel underfoot and catching the Vodacce with a solid backhand.   Fixated now on this new target, Mannheim lunged for Fortunato, but this time the Vodacce was ready.  He let out a small grunt of triumph as his blade struck true, thrusting it deep into the Eisen's exposed gut.

Unfortunately for the young man, Fortunato's triumph was short-lived.  No scream of pain or angry roar escaped the stone-faced Mannheim.  Before he could remove his sword from the Eisen's body, Mannheim had already clamped his hand tightly around Fortunato's wrist.  The Vodacce struggled to free himself from the stony grip, but nothing could budge it.  Seemingly blessed now with unnatural strength, the Eisen began to effortlessly force back the now-trapped Swordsman.  With growing panic, Fortunato realized he was being herded back towards the Arctius -- and back towards its deadly grasping vines.

"ULF!" cried Fortunato.  "Mannheim isn't dead!"

"BUSY, VODACCE!" came the haggard response.

Fortunato spat out a curse, grinding his heels hard as best as he could into the rocky floor to attempt to stymie Mannheim's relentless push back.  Out of the corner of his eye he could see the writhing vines of the Arctius getting closer, so eager to have him in its clutches and tear him apart.  To hammer that point dangerously close to home, a high pitched chittering suddenly blasted through the Vodacce's mind, filled with greedy anticipation for his demise.  He gritted his teeth.  If the Arctius managed to get a hold of him, then nothing would stop its minion from going after Grace and the doctor.

With sudden, desperate inspiration, Fortunato dropped to a knee, driving his blade downward with all his might.  The gambit paid off for the Vodacce, throwing Mannheim off-balance and loosening his grip on Fortunato's wrist.  Fortunato yelled and twisted his sword, tearing through the Eisen's belly to freedom.  The foul stench of blood and bile washed over him.  Fortunato's eyes teared up a little at the scent as he felt himself gag.  Yet still no sound escaped Mannheim regarding his injuries, save only the crunch of rock underfoot.

Before the Swordsman could get back up to his feet, Mannheim lashed out with a heavy boot towards Fortunato's head.  The Vodacce pulled himself out of the way, quickly rolling off to the side.  But before he could register it, a thick vine suddenly smashed down onto the cavern floor, missing Fortunato by mere inches.  "Merda!" he gasped.  With a burst of speed he didn't know he was capable of, Fortunato pushed off back up to his feet and lashed out at Mannheim just as another vine snapped towards him.

+++++

David groaned and coughed.  His hand immediately went to his throat, checking for any possible injuries lurking from Mannheim's attack.  It felt tender and the doctor was sure there would be a bruise later, but he knew it could have been a lot worse.  He pulled himself up to a sitting position.  He could make out Fortunato having his hands full in fighting both Mannheim and a couple of the longer vines.  David yelled out a warning as one of those vines attempted to trip up the Vodacce.

A scraping noise and a whimper from Grace suddenly caught David's attention.  The Highlander had rolled over onto her side, slowly scuttling back towards the Arctius.  Out of her belly, the seedling was now free to try to uncurl itself off the skewer.  "Grace, no!"  David rushed over.  One hand restrained her while the other made a grab for the skewer.  As horrified as he was, the doctor marveled at the stamina of the tendril, how it seemed to still survive even after the loss of its root mass -- and how it still was able to influence Grace.  He shot a worried look towards the Arctius.  Death itself didn't stop Mannheim from being controlled.

"...'flesh seeks flesh'..." Foreman muttered.  "It's still calling out to you, isn't it, Grace?"

Grey eyes filled with pain met David's, but Grace managed to nod.  "It's so...so loud."

"Can you..."  David's jaw reflexively clenched.  "...can you shut it out at all?"  He reached over with his hand and gently squeezed her left thumb.  No force or fear tinged David's words, just steadiness.  Grace's eyes widened a little in surprise, but she gave a short nod, understanding.

"Some o' it...not strong enough to --"  Another agonizing spasm washed across her face.  "David, s-sorry...sorry I didn't trust--"

"Shh, don't talk.  You have nothing to apologize for, Grace.  I gave you no reason to trust me,"  David shook his head, offering Grace a sad, soft smile.  "And I took an undue advantage of you in that cell."

"It wasn't that bad...."  The Highlander coughed.  Then she managed to give the doctor a faint smile of her own.  "Maybe...maybe we could have--" Another gurgling coughing fit suddenly cut her off.

For a brief moment, David looked at Grace in utter shock, both so vulnerable right now in more than one way.  Renewed determination spread across his face.  He brushed his lips tenderly against her brow and whispered "I will get you out of this."

The doctor quickly felt around the cavern floor near him to make sure what he needed hadn't been knocked away when Mannheim attacked him.  Reassured that they were still at hand, Foreman, with a slightly abashed expression now, tore away part of Grace's blood-soaked tunic to get better access to the seedling and her wound.  Then he grabbed the skewer and started to twist the tendril back around again.

+++++

The Vesten panted with effort, fighting the exhaustion his body was now feeling.  The thick vines of the Arctius lashed at him, bludgeoning him to the ground.  Ulf rolled with the impact as another vine just missed smashing into his head.

"To the Abyss with you, weed!" spat Ulf, voice hoarse.  His chest throbbed painfully, but he tightened his grip on his knife.  Ulf tensed into a crouch.  As another branch whipped towards him, he vaulted and made a grab for it.  Sensing the extra weight now on it, the abominable plant let out an angry hiss in the Vesten's head, but he wrapped his legs around the vine and began to hurriedly climb.  The vine twisted under him, trying to throw Ulf off.  Ulf growled, jabbing Rabbitslayer into the plant's fibrous flesh here and there to aid him in his ascent.  A grim smile twitched across his face as the Arctius screeched again.  He could feel the vine suddenly rise.  Placing Rabbitslayer between his teeth, Ulf leaped upwards into the unwelcoming dark towards another branch.

+++++

Fortunato reeled back from another clubbing forearm -- and right into a sinewy tendril slashing across his lower torso.  The Vodacce cried out in pain and anger, but he parried the vine back before it could wrap itself around him.  Mannheim lashed out with an elbow towards Fortunato's temple.  Fortunately, it just grazed the young man.  The Swordsman grimaced, unnerved by the lack of any response from the Eisen.  Ruin monsters would have at least groaned out for blood and brains.  What had the Arctius done to Mannheim -- and was the same horrible fate in store for Grace?

Mannheim lunged for Fortunato, his exposed chest a tempting target for him, but the Vodacce instead sidestepped, not wanting to risk getting his sword trapped again.  He weaved his sword defensively back and forth between Mannheim and the vines, but he was getting tired.  His body ached, hoping in vain for some respite no matter how brief.

"Fleshling..."  The Arctius rasped in Fortunato's head.

"Stop CALLING us that!" snapped the Vodacce.

"But that is what you are!"  The creature taunted.  "Just weak, pathetic flesh!"

Mannheim closed in again on Fortunato, who tried to put the Eisen between him and the vines, hoping the Arctius would be confused and attack Mannheim instead.  But somehow, the Arctius sensed his approach and the vines reared back from Mannheim.  "Interesting," murmured the young Swordsman.  Fortunato's thoughts quickly turned on how he could possibly take advantage of this.

"Flesh is weak...blah blah blah!"  Fortunato dodged one vine trying to slam into him.  He pivoted on his heel, now flanking Mannheim's back.  The Eisen turned, but Fortunato ducked, slashing low with his blade and cutting deeply into the back of Mannheim's knee.  The Eisen may have been inured to the pain, but the injury itself caused him to stumble, forcing him to regain his footing.  Fortunato allowed himself a small grin.  "But you forgot your minion is also flesh, oh mighty Arctius!"

An enraged screech blasted through Fortunato's mind, but the Vodacce just gritted his teeth, concentrating on his new targets.  It was difficult enough trying to attack specific parts of an opponent's body -- and more difficult still in the dark.  But practitioners of the Durchsetzungburg school prided themselves in such precision.  Mannheim lurched towards the Vodacce, slower now.  Fortunato wondered how much of it was because of the wound he had inflicted or because of whatever orders the Arctius was now issuing.  He squinted a little, trying to get a better look at what should be his next target on Mannheim.

Mannheim's cheeks bulged, then a vine suddenly burst out of his mouth and wrapped itself around Fortunato's free arm.

"Dammit alive, that's cheating!" snarled Fortunato as he struggled to tear himself away from the tendril's clutches.

+++++

David paused to quickly wipe his hands.  Slick with sweat and Grace's blood, they ached slightly and he was having a little trouble keeping his grip on the skewer.  He looked up at Grace.  Her thrashing had ceased, but he could still hear her shallow gasps of breath.  That, at least, was still encouraging.

"Faint..."  Grace suddenly murmured.

"Grace?"  David immediately looked at her in concern.

"Voice in my head...,"  The Highlander's tongue flicked across dry lips.  Then she managed a trace of a smile. "Gettin' fainter."

"Good, good,"  The doctor nodded, a small, hopeful smile now on his own face.   "Could be finally dying, but the tendril looks like it's getting thinner regardless.  We've just about got it out now!"  He let out a brief, weak chuckle.  "Then we do the hard part..."

"Har...hard part?"  Grace almost sounded like she wanted to laugh in disbelief.  "...this wasn't hard enough?"

"The tendril is helping to stanch your wound from bleeding out right now," David said.  Worry flickered across his eyes as he tried to mask the heavy sigh that wanted to escape.  "I'll need you to put pressure on the wound, but it'll only be for a few moments.  Just so I can get ready to work on it.  Can you do that, Grace?"

"...where's Fortunato...?"  Grace strained to turn her head to see and flinched a bit from the pain.

"Easy, don't move,"  David placed a hand to gently restrain her.  "The Arctius somehow animated Mannheim and sent him to attack us.  Fortunato's fighting him off."  The Avalon paused.  His eyes darted back towards the fighting, where he could hear the angry cries from the Vodacce.  The doctor reflexively clenched his jaw, feeling a pang of guilt.  Part of him felt that he should be assisting Fortunato, but he knew full well he'd have been more hindrance than help in combat.

But, more close to the point, David also knew it would now actually be easier to treat Grace without the Vodacce observing him.

The doctor took a quick breath to compose himself, then started twisting the skewer again.  It certainly seemed that there was less resistance.  David nearly allowed himself to smile, but a small, anguished cry from Grace immediately put him on alert.  The slack was out of the tendril, but its end stubbornly stayed lodged in the Highlander's belly.  Foreman grimaced, reminded now of a game fish fighting on a line.  His grip tightened on the skewer, but then he hesitated.  "Grace...?"

"...just do it...!" Grace gasped.  "Get...get it out..."

With a grunt, the Avalon pulled back as hard and as fast as he could, not wanting to prolong Grace's suffering any more.  He heard Grace's strangled groan of pain, her Highlander pride trying to hold it back, but failing.  Part of David wanted to tell her that it was all right to cry, but he stayed mute as he struggled with the skewer.  They weren't out of the proverbial woods yet.  "Come ON!" he muttered under his breath, tugging hard on the skewer as he did.  The doctor leaned back, pulling with all his might and was finally rewarded with a sick, wet squelching sound.

The head of the seedling suddenly snapped towards David's face, sending flecks of Grace's blood flying.  Tiny claw-like appendages futilely grasped the air as in their center one sharp, hardened barb thrusted madly like a stiletto at him.  Even while dying, the seedling of the Arctius still sought out flesh.  Or was it even dying at all?  With a look of disgust, David flung the skewer off to the side as far away as he could from himself and Grace.

"Work fast," the doctor murmured, urging himself.  The coppery scent of Grace's blood hung strongly in the dank air.  A wound to the abdomen was hard enough to treat in the best of circumstances and a sword or dagger thrust had the advantage of at least being a straight path.  But there was no telling what organs may have been perforated by the spawn of the Arctius in its attempt to bury into Grace.  And now here David was, in a dark, unhygienic cavern underground, having his very life threatened by an unnatural creature from before Theah's ken, trying to save a woman's life in time without clean water and the barest of supplies.  A brief, rueful chuckle escaped David's lips.  No wonder Fortunato expressed disbelief earlier.

He quickly picked up one of the vials next to him and ran his thumb along its side, checking the faint pattern of bumps on it.  Satisfied with what he had felt, David pulled out the stopper.  Grace made a sound, part rasp, part moan.  "Work fast!" David said again, more urgently.  He carefully pushed Grace's hand aside and tipped the vial onto her wound.  The balm poured out like warm honey.  Grace suddenly gasped, but this time it was more in shock than pain.  Foreman allowed himself a smile, more sure now as he gently rubbed the balm in.  It felt cold under his fingertips, nearly numbing.  He could only imagine how much colder it felt for the Highlander, but at least he knew it was working.

"Cre...crescent?!"  Grace managed to ask.

"Yes, Crescent," David said quickly.  He cast his eyes downward, back to the other two vials.  He soon emptied his current vial into Grace's wound and set it down.  He continued to gently massage the rest of the balm onto her abdomen, the scent of blood finally growing fainter.  He picked up one of the other vials and stroked it with his thumb.  Then he set that one down and picked up the other instead.  David's throat suddenly felt dry as he opened the new vial.  "This is something for the pain."

"Whisky?"  He could hear the weak hope in Grace's question.

"No, no whisky, I'm afraid," David offered her a sheepish shrug.  The doctor carefully raised Grace's head as he brought the vial to her lips.  "But I'll buy you the first dram when we get back to Insel."

"Promises, promises..." Grace breathed.  She cupped a bloodstained hand over David's, the one holding the vial.  Her nostrils flared slightly as the barest trace of a sigh escaped her.  Her lips brushed against David's knuckle before she pressed the vial's opening to her mouth and took the draught in herself.  She coughed.  In two heartbeats, her eyelids suddenly fluttered and then closed shut.

"...I'm sorry, Grace..."  David shook his head regretfully as he slowly lowered her back against the cavern floor.

+++++

"ARGH!"  Fortunato's free arm was nearly hyperextended as the vine wrapped around it wrenched back.  He stumbled forward.  Mannheim's erratic twisting kept him off-balance and he was unable to get an attempt off to cut himself free from the tendril's grip.  The Vodacce spat out several curses as he struggled to right himself.  The pain in his shoulder was excruciating and Fortunato silently prayed his arm wasn't now dislocated out of its socket.  This was a tug-of-war he could not afford to lose.

The vine reared up and began to reel Fortunato towards Mannheim.  With a cry, the young Swordsman rode the momentum, bringing his sword down into Mannheim's neck with an  arching chop.  The blade struck true with an ugly tearing noise, cutting deep into flesh and, more importantly, plant.  Wild, pain-ridden screeching slammed into Fortunato's mind as he felt the tendril go slack.  He quickly drew his sword out.   Mannheim's head lolled to one side, now partially severed.  The tendril dangled limply out of his mouth, much like an exaggerated tongue from one of Legion's own imps.  Waves of relief washed over the Vodacce as he finally jerked his arm free.

But the Eisen lurched towards Fortunato again, unwilling or unable to give up the pursuit.  Instinctively, Fortunato pulled back, only to have a heavy vine of the Arctius smash into his back.  The impact sent him crashing face first into the cavern floor.  Fortunato cried out in pain, feeling his blood start to stream down from his nose.  Out of the corner of his eye he could just make out Mannheim raising his leg.

"No you don't!"  Just in time, the Vodacce grabbed Mannheim before he could bring his heavy boot down to crush his skull.  Mannheim tried to jerk it away, but Fortunato twisted the leg, sending the Eisen sprawling.  Mannheim's head flapped back at an angle that no human neck was ever meant to bend at.  The Eisen's arms scrambled against the rocks as he frantically tried to pull himself upright.

But Fortunato was already moving a step ahead.  Gritting his teeth, he brought his blade down fast, finally decapitating the Eisen.  The head flopped to the side, its roll halted by the arrow still stuck in one eye.  Bile rose in Fortunato's throat at the sight.  He fought down the urge to vomit, quickly turning away from the body.  No sooner than he did than Fortunato heard a scraping sound.  Mannheim's arms and legs still flailed, but not with any sort of death spasm.  The movement was deliberate as the now-headless corpse resumed its attempt to right itself.

"Theus above...,"  The sheer weight of the horror he faced edged Fortunato's voice.  What would it take to put down Mannheim permanently?  And even if he succeeded, what chance did any of them have in stopping the Arctius itself?  The remnant of the tendril spurted from Mannheim's neck stump.  Fortunato's gaze followed the outline of vine just buried under Mannheim's skin.  With a hoarse howl, he suddenly threw himself at the Eisen, savagely slashing now at the root mass entwined in Mannheim's chest.  Chunks of human tissue and plant matter flew from the Vodacce's frantic reaping.  Shrieking, pain-madden and now tinged with fear, blasted through Fortunato's mind and he involuntarily shuddered, but he did his best to shut it out, concentrating on his grim task.  That, if he could just cut away enough, one nightmare might finally be over.

Finally, blessed silence reigned in the Vodacce's mind and Mannheim's maimed body collapsed and moved no more.  Panting with exhaustion, Fortunato stumbled back one step, then promptly allowed himself to throw up.

+++++

Ulf's mouth twitched into an uncomfortable grimace as he struggled to pull himself up onto another writhing vine of the Arctius.  He had found that by climbing closer to the base of the plant creature, it was more difficult for the Arctius to buck him off.  It didn't make it any less painful, however, and the Vesten's legs were throbbing in agony.  He didn't dare stop, nor did he dare to look down, even when he heard the Vodacce yell.  In Ulf's mind, this was a good thing.  It meant that the Vodacce was alive and still fighting.

Ulf grunted, removing Rabbitslayer from his teeth.  He knew he was close to his target as he glanced upwards towards the top of the Arctius, though he couldn't make out any specific details or features.  The creature could think, therefore, by Ulf's reasoning, it had to have a brain of some kind.  And if its brain was injured or impaired...

Another grunt and Ulf hoisted himself to the very top of the creature itself.  He didn't know what to expect, in all honesty.  Perhaps at least some sort of mouth that he could finally silence forever.  But instead the Vesten found himself on top of a surprisingly smooth and featureless surface.  Ulf crinkled his nose, gagging a little.  The stench was just as bad up here as it was down below.  A small rumble from the Arctius caused him to quickly maintain his footing.

"Silly fleshling...what do you hope to accomplish up there?"  A chuckle rippled through Ulf's head and he scowled in response.  His foot tapped once.  The top of the Arctius was just as tough and wooden as the rest of its vines.  His knife would be of little effect in what he hoped to accomplish.  Still, the burly Vesten raised Rabbitslayer high, ready to try to slam it down anyway...

...and then he paused.  Ulf squinted.  Then a faint, grim grin curled acrossed his face.  He sheathed the knife.  Just above him hung a jagged stalactite, a solitary fang in a wide, gaping maw.  Ulf cracked his knuckles and prepared to brace himself as he reached up to yank down part of the stalactite.  But he needn't have bothered with bracing.  The stalactite broke off easily.  Too easily as the limestone it was made from crumbled in the Vesten's hands into useless pebbles.  Ulf's face fell in frustration.  A small part of him wondered how he could blame this on the Vodacce.  He rolled his eyes.

And then paused again.

There was a narrow outcropping of rock on the cavern wall right near him.  Not large enough for Ulf to climb on.  But there was a large, rough chunk of stone balancing on it.  Ulf carefully took hold of it and gave it a mindful squeeze.  To the Vesten's relief, the rock remained solid in his grasp, being of durable quartz rather than fragile limestone.  It was heavy too.  Gritting his teeth, Ulf shifted his hold on the rock, making sure the flinty, sharp edge was pointed towards the bottom.

"YAR!"

*WHUMP!*

Ulf drove the rock down into the Arctius as hard as he could and was rewarded with an irritated hiss for his efforts.  He raised the rock high overhead, trying to push away the all the ache and exhaustion his body was feeling, and slammed it down hard again.  This time, a chip of the Arctius itself had been hacked free.  Encouraged, Ulf continued to hammer down, bit by bit widening the wound.

"SSSSSKREEE! ENOUGH!"

"Even the hardest walnut must crack, demon!" snarled the Vesten.  He reached down to peel off another large, fibrous chunk.  If he flayed off enough of that tough outer shell, there had to be something vulnerable to then fully assault.  But the Arctius spasmed violently underneath him, causing Ulf to pitch backwards.  He quickly staggered to regain his balance, but overcompensated in going forwards.  The creature quaked again and the Vesten found himself falling into the dark.  A surprised cry escaped Ulf as he frantically tried to find some sort of hold anywhere in time.

"URK!"

Ulf's plummeting came to a sudden and uncomfortable stop.  His leg was jerked back and he found himself suspended high in midair.  One of the Arctius' tendrils had caught that leg and he was now dangling upside-down.  He tried to go for his knife, but another vine quickly wrapped itself about Ulf's arm.  Ulf futilely kicked at the vine with his free leg, but it was to no avail.

"Fleshling..."

The cold whisper invaded Ulf's mind, full of hunger and cruelty.

"...you are but an insect to us..."

The vines entrapping the Vesten tightened their grip.  Ulf let out a sharp gasp.

"...and insects are to be PLUCKED!"

The vines slowly began to pull and the Vesten roared in pain.  He struggled, desperately trying to get loose in time before the Arctius could tear him in half, but the vines were too strong, too eager for his death.  Ulf spat out a curse in painful rage as he felt his shoulder pop.

*SHUNK!*

A hateful screech blasted through Ulf's head as the vine around his arm suddenly went slack.  The feeling flooded back into his arm as he pulled his arm free from the now-severed vine.  Fortunato quickly brought his sword up, partially slicing through the other vine holding Ulf.  The Vesten dropped into an undignified heap by the Vodacce's feet, bruised but alive.

"Sorry, but Ulf's not on the menu.  You don't know where he's been!"

Ulf drew out his knife as he picked himself back up.  "Vodacce, why are you not with Grace and the doctor?"

"'Thank you for saving my life, Fortunato!'"  Even in the dark, Ulf could tell Fortunato was rolling his eyes.  "As I tried to tell you earlier, Mannheim wasn't fully dead!  He was rather unhappy about that and wanted to take it out on me."

"You do have that effect on people, Vodacce."  A beat.  "And you smell of vomit."

Several vines suddenly whipped towards the two men.  Ulf and Fortunato stood back to back of each other, parrying them back as best they could.  "Never was much for gardening," grumbled Fortunato.

"Agreed, Vodacce," grunted Ulf.  "But there is a way to prune the beast."  He hacked at the thick trunk, trying to pry away the rough exterior.  The Arctius screamed in rage as a vine smashed down at them.  Ulf and Fortunato dove away to the sides, sending rocks scattering in their respective wakes.

"I don't think he appreciates Vesten diplomacy, Ulf,"  The Vodacce ducked and rolled, back towards the base of the Arctius.  He jabbed his blade into the small opening the Vesten had made and twisted.  For once, the sword actually pierced more than a couple of inches into the main body of the plant creature.  Fortunato almost laughed with hope, scarcely believing that their luck had finally turned.  "We might have a cha--!"

*WHUMP!*
*WHUMP!*
*WHUMP!*

"VODACCE, MOVE!"  Fortunato felt the heavy hands of the Vesten grab and yank him hard.  Rocks crashed all around them.  The vines of the Arctius were hammering the cavern ceiling.  Fortunato and Ulf scrambled back, doing their best to avoid the deadly shower but the Arctius continued its bludgeoning.  They heard a sickening CRACK and part of the opening where they came in from disappeared under rocks.  

"Theus, it means to bury us alive!" Fortunato whispered.

+++++

David meticulously checked to make sure Grace's nose and throat were clear.  He then placed two fingers on the side of her neck.  The Highlander's pulse was faint, but steady now.  A small sigh of relief escaped the doctor.  He had to make sure that the spawn of the Arctius hadn't left behind any sort of poison in Grace.  However, the drawback of the antitoxin he had given her was that it had a tendency to fatigue even the fittest person.  And given the extent of Grace's injuries, her falling into unconsciousness had been the likeliest outcome.

Not that it eased the Avalon's worry.  Or guilt.  There would be questions he didn't know if he could answer later, but for now the important thing was to get the wounded Explorer out of danger.  He tossed the remaining vial back into the satchel draped across his shoulder, then tore off a long swath of linen.  He expertly began to wrap it around Grace's torso for bandaging.  Her sticky, drying blood blotted into the cloth as an ugly reminder to the doctor of what she had went through.  David nodded at his work.  At least her torso wasn't exposed anymore.  It would give him some time and leeway for later here.

Suddenly, there was a loud thundering overhead.  Foreman's head snapped up to see a cascade of rock and stone falling from the cavern's ceiling.  His eyes widened in horror at the sight of the Arctius, its many massive vines battering the rocks.  David heard the frantic yelling from Ulf and Fortunato and he saw that at the far end of the cavern, part of the opening they had come in from was already covered by heavy stones.  A cold knot of panic spiked in the doctor's gut as he hastened to pick up Grace.  The woman stirred slightly and winced, but remained unconscious in David's grasp.

As soon as David started to move, a couple of the vines resumed throwing chunks of loose rock towards him.  He halted and ducked, shielding the Explorer's body as best as he could as shattered stone rained down on them.  A small groan escaped the Avalon as a stone slammed against his shoulders.  But he just shifted his grip on Grace, making sure she wouldn't be jarred loose.  David peered into the darkness, blowing out a quick puff of breath.  He remembered the crevasse from before and the last thing he wanted to do was fall into it in his rush to escape.  "Sorry, Grace.  This isn't looking good for us," David muttered.  "This might be a bit uncomfortable...."

He softly counted to himself, timing the pattern of the vines and then started to run again.  Gravel crunched underfoot as the doctor's senses did a precarious juggling act of trying to pick out the safest path -- one that would neither trip him up, send him spilling into the chasm nor smashed by crashing rock.  He squinted then vaulted, heart pounding in his chest at the thought that he may have mistimed everything.

Meanwhile, Ulf had managed to pull himself back up to his feet.  "Vodacce, we need to hold the demon's attention or the doctor and Grace won't have a chance out there!"

Fortunato gave a curt nod.  "I'm on it.  Ulf, you try to clear away those rocks from the exit.  If we're cut off, we're finished!"  The Vesten opened his mouth to protest, but then reluctantly nodded himself.  Of the two of them, Ulf was more physically capable of trying to remove the rocks and stones.  Towards the exit, he managed to scoop his bow back up, remarkably undamaged throughout it all.  Ulf grunted, muscles straining as he tried to push away one boulder.  He could only hope the rest of them could be so lucky.

"YAH!" screamed the running Swordsman.  He thrusted at a slower vine.  "Pick on somebody your own size, you...you overgrown salad!"  Fortunato already knew it wasn't one of his better quips as soon as the words left his mouth.  The vine smacked the Vodacce back like the pest he was.  The only other response he got from the Arctius was an inarticulate and heated hiss blasting through his mind as the rest of its thrashing branches continued to hammer the ceiling.  More dangerously larger pieces crashed down all around him and Fortunato felt dizzy with all the increased sidestepping and dodging around.  "Foreman, HURRY!"

"Coming!"  The Avalon barked, panting.  To Fortunato's relief, he saw that the doctor was carrying Grace.  Foreman still attempted to run in an erratic pattern, though against the dropping rocks, it was tough to say if it was effective or not in avoiding them.  Suddenly, Fortunato heard Ulf bellow and risked a glance back to see the burly Vesten now struggling to brace a massive stone that was threatening to enclose the cavern entirely.  Ulf groaned, veins bulging under the stone's weight.  Only a few slender hand spans of light remained and with them their faint hope of escape.  "Come on!" muttered Fortunato, torn between wanting to help Ulf or help the doctor.

Without warning, a slab of rock smashed down, inches in front of David.  The doctor skidded, trying to shift his path in time.  Fortunato's pulse raced as he saw the Avalon stumble and trip, then Grace slipping from Foreman's arms.  The young Vodacce bolted in an instant, going for Grace without thought.

"VODACCE, I CANNOT HOLD FOR THIS MUCH LONGER!" The Vesten's howl was filled with desperation and exhaustion.  Sweat dripped from Ulf's brow.  One more rock, one more crash from where he stood and it would be all over.  The Vesten's jaw clenched, feeling one of his knees start to buckle.

Fortunato reached the fallen Explorer and started to pick her up.  With his hands now full, he didn't have time to register the angry vine lashing towards him and Grace.

But David did.

Before Fortunato could react, the doctor had already interposed himself between the humans and the vine.  He tried to grab it, but it just coiled around him.  Then it began to rise upwards with its new prize.  "Get--NGH!  Get Grace out of here!"  David cried out.

"Theus..."  Fortunato froze, not wanting to abandon him.

"GO!"

"VODACCE!"

Ulf's urgent roar broke Fortunato out of his thoughts.  Clutching Grace tightly to him, he turned away and ran for the escape.  The Arctius screeched in rage as the Vodacce made it to Ulf.  He pushed Grace through first and wedged himself through as fast as could.  Ulf dove after him immediately once he was clear.

And the rocks crashed down with thunder, sealing the cavern off -- and what remained in it -- in full darkness.


Chapter Text

"Nnrrgh,"  The groan was the only sound Fortunato could make.  Unconsciously, his tongue flicked against the roof of his mouth as if to check and feel that all his teeth were still in place.  "Owww."  The Vodacce's eyes finally snapped open and he frantically looked around the area.  His gaze immediately fell upon Grace.  The only thing that moved on the Highlander was her chest as she breathed.  Still unconscious, her abdomen was now wrapped snugly in a blood-stained bandage.

"Ulf?"

The Vesten grunted and coughed as he pulled himself up to his knees.  "Here, Vodacce."

Relief began to wash over Fortunato's face.  But then he realized who else was still missing -- and how it happened.  He spun around to look behind them only to be met by a wall of fallen rock where the cavern's opening once was.  "Theus, Foreman!"   The young Swordsman jumped to his feet.  The pain rippled through his body in protest, but he did his best to ignore it as he attempted to move some of the boulders.  They didn't budge.  "Dammit!  Ulf, give me a hand here!"

"Vodacce..."  Ulf laid a hand on Fortunato's shoulder, shaking his head grimly.  "We cannot do anything for the doctor right now.  We need to get out of here!"

"You can't be serious, Ulf!"  Fortunato looked at the Vesten incredulously.  "Foreman isn't going to stand a chance against that creature.  We--!"

"Vodacce,"  Ulf's grip tightened on Fortunato's shoulder, causing him to gasp a little.  "Think.  Think about Grace's condition."  He grimaced, then sighed.  The exhaustion was clear on his face.  "You and I are both injured, but Grace is worse off!  We need to get her back to the keep as soon as possible and tell the others about the demon and Mannheim.   Then we must get word to Posen's soldiers back in Insel when the ferry finally comes!  They are better equipped to deal with this.  You know this is true."

"Dammit..."  Fortunato ran a hand across his brow and winced.  Ulf's words made sense and the fact that the Vesten didn't make any sort of snide comment about Father Sigurd back at the keep hammered how grave the situation was.  "I don't like it, Ulf.  I don't like leaving a man behind!  Not after what Foreman did for us back there."

"Neither do I, Vodacce.  But we cannot let the doctor's sacrifice be in vain.  He wanted us to get Grace to safety,"  Ulf went over to the Highlander and carefully picked her up.  Grace mewled softly in his arms, but didn't wake up.  "But if any man is clever enough to hold out until we can get help, it's Doctor Foreman."

Reluctantly, Fortunato nodded in agreement.  He let out a long, ragged sigh as he sadly glanced over to Grace.  "She's going to kill us when she finds out we left him behind, Ulf."

"I know, Vodacce,"  The Vesten said quietly.  He began to cautiously pick his way back up to the surface.  "But at least we'll all be alive for it."

+++++

Lying prone, David blinked a few times, but the darkness stayed in place.  The Arctius must have dropped him.  The back of his head throbbed in pain.  It felt worse when he placed a hand on the back of his scalp.  With a hiss, he immediately jerked it back, the tell-tale sticky warmth of his own blood now on his fingertips.  The Avalon carefully brushed away bits of gravel from out of his hair, then gingerly, he reached behind to touch it again.  David felt a jagged cut on the back of his head.  Not too deep, nor too long, but just painful enough.  He sat up and reached for his satchel.

And froze.  The familiar weight of his satchel across his shoulder was now gone.  David felt his breath catch in his throat as he tried to fight the rising panic.  His eyes started to grow accustomed to the darkness, but he could still make out little detail.  Somewhere behind him he could faintly hear running water.  Grimacing, David rose to one knee.

Something swiftly brushed against his side.  "Ah!" David gasped, scrambling to get away.

"Fleshling..."  A harsh braying cut through the doctor's mind.  The Arctius seemed amused by its lone toy.  "They've left you behind, fleshling..."

"Good," groaned David.  He pulled himself into a crouch.  "That was the entire point."

"So, so brave!  But you need not pretend anymore to us, fleshling...give us your fear!"

"Fear...you're one to talk, Arctius," The doctor said between gritted teeth.  He stretched a hand out in front of him, trying desperately to feel around for his satchel.  Pebbles knocked against his fingertips as he patted the floor of the cavern surrounding him.  "I daresay you panicked there.  Or do you normally cause cave-ins when things are going well?"

A thorny vine suddenly wrapped around David's arm, hoisting him upward.  David gasped in pain, futilely clawing at the vine, but it only squeezed him tighter.  "We fear NOTHING!"

"AAH!"  The cry escaped the doctor before he could stop himself, the weight of his own dangling body putting tremendous strain on his arm and shoulder.  "Rah-roots...roots!  That's how you 'see', isn't it?  You can sense my movement by your roots underground!"

The vine lowered, letting the balls of David's feet just brush against the floor.  He gasped again as he struggled for balance, trying to relieve some of the pressure off his limb.  But in the back of his skull, he heard -- felt -- slithering.  As if the Arctius was trying to burrow through his very thoughts.  Its looming presence seemed much more aggressive and enveloping now that it physically touched the doctor.  David shuddered, unable to stop himself and the insidious creature only chuckled at his attempts to recoil from it.  Was this what Grace experienced when the spawn of the Arctius tried to infest her?  "Clever fleshling..."  The Arctius whispered in sibilant tones.  It almost sounded impressed by the Avalon.  "...you remind us of the other one.  So many little secrets we can sense...."

"'Other...'?"  David gasped, recalling the final fate of Mannheim.  He tried to steel himself, feeling that mental slithering attempt to wash over him again, thick and slick and undulating.  This time, the Arctius hissed sharply.  The vine that held the doctor's arm suddenly snapped forward and let go, sending the man falling back against the rocks.  David groaned as a hundred gravelly pinpricks struck his back.  But at least he was free -- for now.

And his head felt clearer once the Arctius no longer held him, though he still could hear the giant plant aberration snarl in his thoughts.  Whatever block he had managed to place in his mind had worked that time.  David rolled over on his side, trying to quickly massage some feeling back into his arm.  "There is nothing left for you, fleshling.  Why try to resist us now?"

"Because," David winced, squinting into the inky darkness.  Finally, he was able to make out the faint outline of the Arctius towering ahead of him.  "There's nothing left for you either, Arctius.  Grace and her allies are out of your reach by now.  And, thanks to your cave-in, I doubt you'll ever even get another boar too!"  The Avalon scuttled a little to the left, letting his hand sweep along the ground.

And felt the familiar touch of oiled, waterproofed leather just at the edge of his fingertips.

David held his breath.  Heart thumping in his chest, he deliberately tapped the cavern floor with the heel of his boot as if he was nervous.  Which wasn't far from the actual truth.  David stretched out his arm and quickly grabbed his satchel.  He clutched it to his chest for a moment in relief.  Then he immediately checked it over.  Its latch had remained closed, luckily.  Nothing had fallen out or appeared to have been broken.  "Yes, I wager you need me a lot more than I need you, even if it's just for one more meal."

He cradled the satchel in his lap, strap now slung back across his shoulder.  The scratchy chuffing that the Arctius used for laughter filled the doctor's head again, rough and mocking.  David tried to ignore it as he rummaged through his satchel.  "Your delusions are refreshing, fleshling!  We will enjoy savoring each one when you finally beg us for mercy at the end!"   To that, David said nothing, refusing to take the bait.  With trembling hands, he took out the last vial and uncorked it.  He poured the balm into the palm of his hand, then he massaged the back of his head.  The cold burn began to permeate his scalp, and the various aches and pains throughout his body started to subside.  Under David's very fingertips, the laceration on the back of his head knitted itself.  The Avalon then carefully rubbed his neck, feeling the throbbing from Mannheim's attempt to throttle him finally die down.  David silently let out a quick sigh of relief, but the trembling in his hands hadn't stopped.  He shut his eyes, straining to listen.

Water.  Somewhere far left behind him, the sound of running water.  The crevasse.  The doctor nodded to himself, grimacing.  He pulled himself up to his feet.  That was where he had to go.

"Fleshling, you've grown quiet!"  The voice of the plant monster dripped with false concern.  "Have you realized how long it will take for you to finally die?  To feel the hunger gnawing away at your miserable gut piece by piece?"

"Even the oldest tree in the forest dies eventually, Arctius,"  David said coldly.  "The Syrne are long gone.  This isn't your world anymore!  Go back into dormancy...go back to sleep.  And one day the humans will be gone too..."

In response, all David got was an inarticulate roar filled with hatred and heated bile blasting through his mind.  "SHHRAAA!  NEVER!  We survived the Tesserans, the Setines, even the Drachen!  The time of the flesh is OVER!  This is now the time of the Arctius!"

The doctor began to carefully scramble towards the back of the cavern again.  His heart thumped loudly and he prayed that the plant creature wouldn't try to make another grab for him, that he was beneath its notice.  Now that David had his satchel safely with him again, the workings of his plan were finally starting to form.  But if the Arctius caught him and was able to probe into his thoughts again....

David flinched, the darkness hiding the palpable disgust on his face as he acutely recalled the crawling sensation he felt in his mind when the Arctius had hold of him.   Like being smothered in rank oil.  However, whatever the creature's abilities were, they at least seemed to have some limits.  It hadn't ferreted out everything.  Or at least that's what David was hoping as he continued his slow scuttling to the back.  One hand dropped to his satchel's flap and opened it back up again, then hesitated.  David drew in a ragged breath as an uncomfortable shudder rippled down his spine.

"Fleshling, are you trying to hide from us?"  The Arctius was back to sounding amused again.  "Maybe you're not as clever as we thought."

"Can you blame me?" said the doctor simply.  He tentatively felt around, picking his path.  Every step had his heart thundering in his ears as he continued to pray that the Arctius kept disregarding him. "End or not, I'm not looking to die any time soon."

"HA!  Even the female had more spine than you!  Oh, fleshling, the disgusting thoughts she had about you...HA!  Yet here you are cowering!  You fleshlings are so pathetic and weak...  We will enjoy feeding on your desperate, starving corpse!"

David tried to ignore the taunts of the aberration, feeling his gut grow cold.  But the sound of water lapping against the rocks had grown louder.  The Avalon reached out with his foot and found only emptiness.  Even under the stench of the plant creature, David could actually now make out the saline tang of the sea.  He drew his foot back away from the crevasse and turned back towards the Arctius, quickly placing his hand into his opened satchel as he did so.

"Cowering, yes.  But what makes you any different from me then, hmm?"  A small chuckle escaped the doctor, surprising even himself.  His hand grasped the wooden butt of the pistol, but he held off drawing it out.  "You talk of 'surviving' all these great Syrneth races, when all you really did was just hide in a cave and slept for centuries!  You barely survived one Vesten and one Vodacce...what makes you think you can survive an entire army if they choose to come after you?"

"SHHHRAAA! We are already healing!  We know how they fight now.  We WILL survive!  'Choose to come'?!"  The Avalon heard the harsh crack.   Immediately, David ducked as a huge chunk of rock he could barely see shattered against the cavern wall above him.  "Of COURSE the army of flesh will come!  Come to their DEATHS!  They cannot resist...pride for war will be their undoing!  Among other things..."

"And common sense will be yours, Arctius."  David grimaced in disgust, finally drawing the pistol.  He fumbled a bit with the satchel, making sure it was once more latched shut tightly.  He glanced over towards the crevasse, weighing the situation and recalling what he had been told about his ammunition.  He only had the one ball of amber shot.  "Monsters like you need to stay buried.  Posen would know better -- no one's coming for you!"

"For us?  Perhaps not..."  The creature's laughter echoed darkly in the doctor's head.  "But for you, fleshling, the female would tear down the very gates of your so-called 'Abyss' themselves!"

"Grace..."  The Highlander's name escaped his lips before he knew it.  David flinched and shook his head frantically, as if to convince himself more than the Arctius.  The pistol felt so heavy in his hand.  Any number of things could go wrong.  The air could be too damp.  Or he'd miss regardless of the beast's size.  Or a misfire.  Or it'd have no effect.  Or...  "No, no.  She's too smart.  She'd never put the Explorers at risk like that.  Not for me."

"Poor, deluded gnat!"  The Arctius laughed again, harsh and mocking.  "The guilt and shame she has for doubting your innocence -- not to mention, the want.  Flesh seeks flesh..."

David's breath caught in his throat again and he shuddered.  Grace.  Smart Grace, stubborn Grace.  Coming back for a stranger that should have stayed forgotten.  She would do it too, dragging her friends with her.  The only sound the Avalon could make now was a short rasp.  His shoulders slumped as he looked down at the pistol, hidden in the shadows.

"...and they will come.  SHE will come.  And we will feed and grow and spread ourselves far  from this miserable pit.  We will finally RULE!"

The doctor straightened himself up and stared straight into the inky depths ahead of him.  He pushed aside the doubts and fears threatening to freeze him and focused only on what needed to be done.  He had tried to neutralize this threat with reason -- to let it stay entombed in spite of the atrocities it committed -- but the danger the Arctius now presented was far too great.  Theah was not ready for this.  And David couldn't risk the Arctius' horrific desires coming to pass.

"Lady, stand now with your servant and your Son in this place of darkness and guide his hand against evil," whispered David.

"More foolish denials, fleshling?"  The unholy aberration flexed its massive vines, scraping against the roof of the cavern.  The Arctius screeched and cackled in triumph.  Rocks fell around him, but the Avalon remained in place.  "Your kind's end will soon be FINISHED!"

"No, monster," David's voice was resigned but controlled as he finally raised the pistol.  "The only end coming is yours and mine."

"What nonsense is THIS?!  We--"

As he pulled the trigger and fell back into the crevasse, David could only hope that Grace and her allies had gotten far enough away in time.

+++++

"--again, hitting Sigurd (again) should only be a last resort, Ulf.  Even a man as thick as him has to rea--!"

The roar as sharp as thunder interrupted Fortunato.  Both men immediately looked up to see if the darkening Eisen skies were bringing on another storm.  The ground underneath them suddenly rumbled and shook mightily, knocking Fortunato flat.  Ulf only fared slightly better, driven down to a knee as he carefully cradled the still-unconscious Grace.  As the two men struggled to regain their bearings, a huge gout of orange flame erupted clear over the treeline behind them, sending rock and molten debris flying.

"...Theus..." was all that Fortunato could whisper.

+++++

At the edge of the woods, they came across two of the keep's servants and Father Sigurd.  "Wyrm's teeth!" The Vendel priest's mouth gaped in shock at the billowing dark smoke. "What did you--?!"

The scowl on Ulf's face immediately silenced Sigurd, though his eyes still bulged in surprise.  Seeing the unconscious Explorer in the Vesten's arms caused the Vendel to hastily take a healthy step back.

"Mannheim.  It was Mannheim all along.  He was in league with some sort of monster,"  Fortunato shook his head grimly.  "Doctor Foreman, he...he didn't make it.  He bought us time to get away."  He shook his head again, gaze falling upon Grace, then back towards the smoke.  "I don't know what he did back there, but he gave his life for us."

+++++

Much to the survivors' surprise, a boat bearing the markings of Posen arrived in a couple of hours and with it, a small cadre of soldiers.  The captain of the guard told them that the explosion had been seen and heard all the way from Insel and they were there to investigate.  What wasn't said but was heavily implied was that refusal was NOT an option.

In a search of Mannheim's quarters, a small vial of brown liquid was found hidden in a dresser.  It reeked of the same burnt almond scent that had tainted the Baron's brandy.

A half-hour after midnight, Grace finally regained consciousness and asked for David.  Fortunato and Ulf looked at each other uncomfortably, then the Vodacce delivered the news.  The Highlander said nothing, just turned away back into bed and allowed herself to quietly cry.

+++++

"Who was he, Ulf?"  In Insel, the Explorers had taken rooms at Der Rote Hengst.  Fortunato took it upon himself to attend the inquest, leaving Ulf and Grace to rest and recover.  The chest containing the first empty seed pod of the Arctius had been set in the corner.  It had taken them the majority of the boat trip back to Insel to convince Posen's guards to let the Explorers take custody of it, but now it sat ignored.  Grace swirled her tumbler of whisky, still untouched.  "I mean, if I write to Burke, they're gonna tell me Doctor David Foreman doesn't exist, right?"  She set the glass down, hands flung in the air in frustration.  "Theus, I just met the bloody man!  He was a liar, probably a thief too.  I just...I just--!"

The Vesten placed a hand gently on Grace's shoulder.  "Grace, whoever he was, whatever crimes he had done, it does not matter anymore.  What matters is, in the end, David Foreman did a heroic thing.  His ancestors should be proud of that."  Ulf offered Grace a sad smile.  "It is all right to have cared about him, Grace."

Grace sighed.  "I hate feelin' like this, Ulf.  Hate givin' him that sort o' power over me.  Just not right!  But..."  She sniffed, rubbing her sleeve against her nose.  "...I would have liked to have known him better anyway."  Grace chewed her bottom lip, hesitating.  Then...  "David did--"

"Merda!" A red-faced Fortunato suddenly stormed into the room.  "How could we have been so STUPID?!"

"Vodacce, as always, your timing is so good," Ulf said dryly.

"Not a word, Ulf.  This is serious.  There was another murderer on the isle and we all let him slip away!  And Grace, before you get angry at me again, no, it wasn't Foreman,"  Gritting his teeth, Fortunato paced.  "We should have realized it from the start!"

"Vodacce--"

"Brother Tedmund's murder, Ulf!  I was WITH Mannheim, remember?  And you two were with Sigurd..."

"...but if David didn't do it, who did?"  Grace rose from her chair in shock.

"One of the Baron's servants.  No one suspected him, but he snuck away when the boat arrived in Insel.  He never came to the inquest with the others!  The bald one.  Gabriel, I think his name was.  According to the other servants, he's not even Eisen!"  The Vodacce shook his head in disbelief.  "Three months ago, Mannheim brought him back to the Isle as a new hire.  And, get this, HE was out with Hans on that supposed boar hunt.  Mannheim must have had him do his dirty work to try and frame Foreman.  But now he's gone..."

"Gods!"  Ulf grimaced.  "What if he was infected by that aberration as well?  He could be anywhere!"

"Posen's guards are on the look-out at the city gates and the harbor, he can't have gotten that far."  Fortunato looked worried, however.  "Theus, I don't want to think about more Arctiuses out there, hiding and waiting."

"We should do a perimeter around this inn just in case he is thinking about making a move against us.  He might be attempting some sort of ambush,"  Ulf slapped Fortunato's back.  "Let us go, Vodacce!"

"But I just GOT back!" protested the young Swordsman.  "Besides, he'd have to be insane to stay in the city."

But the Vesten was already pushing Fortunato out of the room.  Hearing the two men bicker and call each other names brought a tiny smile to Grace's eyes in spite of herself.  She sighed, shaking her head as Ulf and Fortunato's voices grew fainter.  She sat back down and pulled up her tunic.  Then she carefully unwrapped the bandage around her torso.  The linen was stiff where her blood had dried, but soon the deed was done.

No scar.  No stitchwork.  Where the seedling had pierced Grace, her skin was now pink and new.  She tentatively stroked where the wound had been with a finger.  It still felt tender, but of that nightmarish attack there was no longer any sign.

"Just who were you, David Foreman?" whispered Grace.

+++++

He supposed he should have felt sadness for the loss of the Arctius.  It had the same needs as him, after all -- to be free and to feed certain appetites.  And, if the monster plant had succeeded, he would have been fine with it ruling Theah.  He had tried such power grabs before in his worse moments and knew he had no patience for it, even addictive as it was.  Far too dangerous in the long run.

And perhaps he should grieve Mannheim's death as well.  Mannheim, so easy to fall under his control.  There was kinship there, faint though it was, and he was loathe to lose it after all this time.  But, in the end, the Eisen wouldn't have been strong enough.  Letting the Arctius have him was a suitable price to pay.

Even if it was all for naught.  No...no, it wasn't for naught.  He was off the Isle, wasn't he?  Free to move back among people and gratify his urges again.  Surely, enough time had passed and he had taken enough to make it past Insel.  Granted, the death of the Eisen Inquisitor had been lacking with his signature incomplete.  It would have served him right if Tedmund had been one of his after all.  But the risk had paid off and ample blood was spilt.  It hopefully would hold him until he was far past Insel, maybe even to Freiburg itself.

He'd have much to think on that journey too.  Fragments slowly weaving together, forming a complex tapestry from the murky swells of his past.  But one particular thread kept twisting in and out of his story, a snarl too tight to just keep ignoring.

 The fires from the explosion made it too dangerous to approach the cavern's once-hidden entrance.  But he was on the coastline of the Isle, on his way back towards the grotto -- and where a sea-fed crack led another path to the lair of the Arctius.  This had been the way he had entered with Hans originally.  Just as he approached, he heard the very sky scream in pain as a blood-red rift tore open.  He ducked behind the craggy rocks as a woman stepped out...and then pulled up the coughing, half-drowned Avalon doctor from the waters.  She murmured something in Montaigne about keeping his eyes closed, then ushered him through the portal.  In a few moments, it closed up as if it was never there to begin with.

David Foreman was alive.  Just as Gabriel knew he would be.  Pulling up the hood of his cloak, he smiled faintly as he passed through the last gate out of Insel.  Their paths would cross again.