Along the Final Path by Laura Sheppard

The sun dipped just below the horizon as Cynric rode his chestnut steed to a slowing canter amid a copse of trees. It had been a long day. In fact, he thought as he wearily swung his large Ulfen frame off his mount, it had been a long few months. His mind drifted as he prepared to make camp, first taking down the slender, shroud-wrapped form which was draped across the stallion’s shoulders and laying it gently on the leaf-strewn ground. The body was so light…

Jenessa was the reason he’d ridden from Restov months ago in early Pharast, as the Brevic winter ebbed and the snows began to melt. When she’d missed celebrating the Feast of Bones at her goddess’ temple, he knew something had gone wrong in Ustalav. By Gorum, Nessa, why didn’t you ask me to come with you? Cynric had cursed. After their twenty years together as Pathfinders, he would have followed the cleric anywhere and she knew it. Of course, she also knew that he had only just recovered from their previous assignment in Iobaria, and that it was taking him some time to learn to compensate for the loss of his left eye.

Because of his injury, the mission to Ustalav was the first she’d ever undertaken without him. “It’s nothing, Seenric,” she had said, drawling his name in her pleasing Osiriani accent, “I’m just following a lead from Amestri’s scrying at the temple. I will be back before harvest’s end, if Pharasma wills.” But soon autumn had passed and given way to the snows of Neth, then Kuthona. It was not until the middle of that cold, dark month that her note had reached him at the Lodge of Crossed Blades:

Cynric –

The vampire coven in Karcau was larger than the Kelishite foretold. I have managed to remain hidden and am still alive, but something about their organization vexes me… I am reminded of the attacks on House Orlovsky in the summer of 4689. Perhaps the fiend has repopulated his ranks?

It may be time to forewarn the Houses, though I would prefer you to wait until I can damage the cabal further from within, in service to the Lady of Graves. However, if I am not back in Restov before the sun sets on the Day of Bones, you have my leave to mount a rescue mission.

I know the cold this time of year reminds you of home… Please be well, my friend, and don’t worry.

– Jenessa

After receiving the letter, Cynric had been anxious to set off to her aid. It had taken the wisdom of the oracle, Amestri and several pints of Stronghammer stout at The Ailing Alchemist before he had relented. Somehow the long nights of winter crept by, giving way to the first flush of spring, and as the sunlight dwindled on the 5th of Pharast, he and his mount, Vjarik had been ready at the west gate.

It took them three weeks to reach the outskirts of Karcau, and only another few days to follow the trail of Jenessa’s investigation, deep within the city’s subterranean labyrinths. When he’d finally found her she was near death. The wounds on her arms and neck were a sure sign that vampire spawn had been upon her in greater numbers than she’d anticipated – probably faster than she could utter her Pharasmin oaths. In fact she would have been on her way to the Boneyard already, were it not for the periapt she’d worn beneath her vestments. Forcing a healing potion down her throat, Cynric had carried her for hours until he found his way back to the surface. Only then had he stopped to rest against the wall of a dark, rain-drenched alley.

“Is it Pharast already?” Jenessa had asked when she’d regained consciousness, managing a weak smile.

Cynric had smirked then shaken his head at her small jest. “Pharast? That should be the least of yer worries, Nessa! By the Lord’s Blade, look at yeh…” He’d surveyed her torn, bloodied robes disapprovingly then helped her to her feet, as she shivered with cold against him. “C’mon, we’d better get yeh out of this rain and take a look at those bite marks.”

“Thank you, Seenric,” she’d said… He remembered everything about her from that moment: the way her dark, braided hair had fallen in wet coils around her shoulders; the smell of her musky perfume; the way she’d gazed in his eyes, with the unspoken reassurance built by years of camaraderie.

And the next instant, she’d inhaled sharply, and died in his arms.

If only I’d been more alert, she might still be alive! Cynric thought, as he threw an armful of firewood down angrily. It was so naïve of me to think we hadn’t been followed! Fuming with frustration, he spotted a large fallen log nearby and hefted it with a roar, sending it hurtling end-over-end into the undergrowth. Then he wiped a hot tear from his cheek, as her last moments flooded his mind: there had been a blur of movement, her startled gasp, and then the vampiric assassin had pierced Jenessa’s heart with a curved blade, finishing the work its brethren had started in the catacombs below. As her body crumpled, Cynric’s barbarian rage, mixed with heart-rending sadness, had mercifully taken over. He had slain the creature quickly – there’d only been chunks of bone and gore left – and then disposed of it ritually on consecrated ground anointed by garlic and holy water. Even now he thanked Gorum for small mercies, as another tear escaped; at least Jenessa’s body had not needed such a treatment. The Lord in Iron granted strength immeasurable, it was true, but if he’d had to endure the same ritual for Nessa, he thought, that strength would not have been enough.

And so, Cynric reflected, after observing a day of mourning and dressing the Osirion’s remains with a preserving unguent, the three of them had ventured slowly back toward Brevoy. Once there, the clerics at her home temple would honor one of their fallen, and the Pathfinders at the Lodge would say their goodbyes. Nessa’s Final Path would then lead south, to publish her Chronicles at the Grand Lodge in Absalom, and finally to the Osirion capital, Sothis, where she would be interred for eternity among the sands of her ancestors. They’d long ago promised to fulfill each other’s death rites, he thought, and as she’d requested, he would not seek to resurrect her. “It would be an affront to Pharasma,” she’d said.

Staring woefully into the flames of his newly-kindled campfire, Cynric sat transfixed, absentmindedly stroking the metal plate covering his empty orbit, before he finally realized that the responsibility for his own ritual – in cleansing fire aboard a dragon-headed pyreship in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings – would now fall to someone other than his long-time friend.

The sharp crack of underbrush brought him abruptly out of his reverie. Abandoning the fire, Cynric leapt lithely to his feet and drew his greatsword, then wheeled to scan the increasing gloom with his remaining eye. Somehow, a vampiric hunting party had managed to follow them unnoticed across the Numerian plains, and no fewer than four pairs of red eyes glinted at him from the shadows, thirsting for a taste of his blood. “Take me, if yeh dare!” Cynric challenged defiantly, then charged toward the nearest creature, severing it in half with a mighty slash of his two-handed blade. He smiled as its blood coated his face and chest; it was a good omen. His own Path to Elysium was lined with the blood of their kind and, if he had his way, by Gorum, his Lord would be well-pleased tonight!