The Lodestone

Tales from the Shadows

Small Mercies

This is a tale of days long past—before the infernal Light burned unrelentingly in the skies over Norvrandt. In a chamber deep within the castle of Gruenes Licht, a young Nu Mou peered intently into a flask, its contents illuminated by the moonlight that cascaded from the clerestory above. Beq Lugg was one of very few of their kind here in Voeburt, a nation dominated by the Drahn and Galdjent—by whose grudging alliance the kingdom had been formed. The youngster’s aptitude for all things arcane, however, was undeniable, and so it was that they were awarded the post of court mage, along with the use of this chamber, where they toiled day and night to unravel the mysteries of the soul.

Though it was closer to dawn than dusk, Beq Lugg gave no thought to sleep. It was at this late hour that Princess Pauldia always came calling. The cheery Drahn girl with the curious glint in her eye was fond of Beq Lugg, whose retiring, reclusive nature could not have been more different from the fawning courtiers among whom she had grown up. And so she would come, time and again, to speak of every trifling thing that had caught her interest that day.

This night, however, the princess offered no word of greeting, nor any other word for that matter. Sensing something was amiss, Beq Lugg set down the flask, and turned to see their guest’s brow uncharacteristically furrowed.

“Dear Pia, whatever is the matter?”

Only the princess’s closest acquaintances used the nickname, and she had always been pleased for Beq Lugg to do so, yet she gave no sign of having heard her friend.

“Don’t tell me—it’s that Sauldia has inherited the three treasures, is it not? Yes, I too would be jealous were I in your place.”

The royal treasures of Voeburt—three relics emblazoned with the mark of the two-headed wolf—had been passed down for generations from ruler to anointed heir. The bequeathal ceremony, which had taken place a few days prior, officially recognized Pauldia’s elder sister as the next queen of the land. And while Beq Lugg was not particularly well versed in the affairs of mortals, even they could imagine how this might affect the girl.

“Jealous? No—that’s not it at all! I love my sister, and no one could be wiser, or kinder, or worthier of the throne than her! I want nothing more than to stay here and support her as I always have! But Father...Father now talks of marriage!”

Looking at the poor child, her shoulders shaking and tears welling in her eyes, Beq Lugg chided themself inwardly. They had assumed from the tales of their brethren that all mortals, however unconsciously, coveted power and position, but they should have known that this one was different. Why else would she visit them of all people. Yet how were they to comfort her? Beq Lugg had scarcely begun to ponder this conundrum when another visitor—a tall and slender Drahn draped in lavish white robes—strode airily into the chamber. Barely acknowledging Beq Lugg, let alone begging leave to enter, the court mage Tadric made straight for the girl.

“Oh, my poorest Princess Pauldia,” the mage began, dripping with affected sympathy, “no one feels your pain more than I. Yet you must understand His Grace’s position. Only once you have been married into another family will the people come to accept your dear sister as the one and true queen.”

Though visibly taken aback at the sudden intrusion, the girl nonetheless answered quickly.

“I know this, of course! And that Father only wants the best for his kingdom and his subjects. But what of his daughter—!?”

“Oh, I quite agree, Your Highness,” the mage oozed. “Fortunately, King Roaldric is a wise and compassionate man. Could he but see the depths of your dismay, I have no doubt he would conclude that an unsought marriage will bring happiness to no one.” Here he paused before adding, “As I should be only too glad to tell him—with your permission, of course.”

The princess blinked disbelievingly.

“You would do that? For me? Thank you, Tadric! Thank you with all my heart!”

Her eyes brightening again, she gave Beq Lugg a sideways glance and whispered, “Nice to see that someone understands me.”

Shoulders sagging, the Nu Mou let out a weary sigh and returned to their solitary labors.

Some days later, the princess came once more to Beq Lugg’s chamber to report that the matter had been settled. After hearing Tadric’s plea on her behalf, the king had agreed to abandon plans for her betrothal. There was, however, one condition—that Pauldia renounce her status as princess, and serve instead as a court mage.

“It is a position I would be only too glad to accept,” she declared with a hint of longing, “had I any aptitude at all for magic. And so I come to you. You told me that you were studying the secrets of the soul, yes? That you believed there was a means by which the hidden talents that slumber within us might be unlocked?”

Averting their eyes so as to avoid the princess’s pleading gaze, Beq Lugg shook their head.

“My research is far from complete, Pia. While it is true that I have developed an elixir which can safely stimulate one’s dormant physical capabilities, awakening arcane talents is another matter entirely. The procedure would entail making irrevocable alterations to the subject’s soul—which I could not in good conscience attempt without exhaustive and lengthy testing.”

Beq Lugg did their best to explain the dangers. The soul was a complex and delicate thing, they said, and even the slightest misstep could do untold harm to her mortal body—or worse. But Princess Pauldia would not relent.

“I don’t care! All I want is to stay here with my family! If I cannot meet Father’s conditions, I will be sent far away. We...we may never see each other again!” The girl’s tone grew ever more impassioned as she continued, “Please, Beq Lugg—you are the only one who can save me!”

Though they would not admit it, the young Nu Mou shared her feelings. They had no desire to lose their best friend in that lonely castle—their only friend beyond their flasks and tomes. Besides, after all the kindness the princess had shown them in their time there, did they not owe her that much?

After staring at the floor for a while and finding no help there, Beq Lugg grudgingly nodded.

The next day, Pauldia’s newfound powers were recognized by the king, and she proudly took her place among the finest mages of the court.

Though her status had changed, Pauldia’s visits remained as frequent as ever. Listening to the girl breathlessly sharing the minutiae of her days, Beq Lugg’s lingering doubts about the powers they had bequeathed to her were gradually eased. And yet their heart was not entirely free of worry.

“Word has it that strange beasts have been appearing near Longmirror Lake of late. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself, Pia.”

In the decades since King Roaldric I had ascended to the throne, the Kingdom of Voeburt and its people had enjoyed a period of nigh-uninterrupted peace. Yet this only served to make the news that a shepherd boy had been found butchered more shocking. The youth had reportedly fallen prey to a fearsome beast which had appeared as if from nowhere. Though the fiend was quickly dispatched by the royal knights, a similarly grisly incident followed some few days later, casting a pall over the city that would not be lifted.

While it was initially assumed that the beasts had wandered into the kingdom from parts unknown, further investigation uncovered a more disturbing truth. The “beasts” had, in fact, been sons and daughters of Voeburt whose bodies had undergone a ghastly transformation through the influence of some unholy power. This revelation plunged the kingdom into chaos, no one knowing when their neighbors or even their loved ones might metamorphose into bloodthirsty abominations.

In the dark days that followed, it was Princess Sauldia who arrived like a comet to pierce the nation’s gloom.

“I told you no one was worthier of the throne!” Pauldia beamed as she raced into the room. “Sauldia now fights at the vanguard in our battle against the monsters!”

The girl had every reason to be proud of her sister. Relations between Voeburt’s knights and its court mages had always been strained at best and outright hostile at worst. And yet, Crown Princess Sauldia had managed to unite them under her leadership, assembling a fighting force blessed with enough might and magic to put down each threat as soon as it arose. Though the cause of the ghastly phenomenon remained a mystery, the crisis had at the very least been contained.

Back at the castle, however, the matter weighed heavy on Beq Lugg’s heart, privy as they were to a terrible secret: that the methods they had revealed to Pauldia in her hour of need might, in theory at least, turn mortals into monsters. But could she stoop so low? No. The Nu Mou shook their head, comforting themself that it would never so much as occur to the pure-hearted girl to use the knowledge they had shared in such a way. And so they returned to their studies, hopeful that the worst was past.

Alas, it was not long before news arrived to give the lie to that hope. Crown Princess Sauldia had been wounded on the front lines—failed, it was said, by one of her knights, who had since been expelled from the guard in disgrace. Faced with such distressing tidings, Beq Lugg could only seek solace in their research, engrossing themself ever more deeply in their work. Whatever was behind all this, it was none of their concern. Sooner or later, the culprit would be found, and forced to answer for these odious acts. The world had a way of balancing itself out, and this time would be no exception. Everything would be all right in the end.

How many moons had passed since then? Their every waking hour consumed by their studies, Beq Lugg could scarcely say. That night, too, they were peering intently into a flask when the door to their study flew open and someone raced into the room. Turning around with a start, their gaze was met by none other than Sul Oul, a fellow Nu Mou who served as a steward to the king.

“Beq Lugg! At last, we have unmasked the villain behind these infernal transformations!”

Beq Lugg suppressed a gasp. This was the moment they had been waiting for, but also the one they had dreaded. They did their best to appear impassive as Sul Oul continued.

“It was that fiend Tadric! A band of adventurers as good as caught him in the act!”

Beq Lugg breathed a sigh of relief, knowing now beyond a shadow of a doubt that their dear Pauldia was innocent.

“I will be joining the adventurers to hunt the traitor down and bring him to justice. But monsters swarm the grounds even as we speak. You must lock yourself in here until the danger has passed!”

Their warning delivered, Sul Oul made to leave, but Beq Lugg called after them.

“Wait! Where is Pia—where is Pauldia!?”

“Rest easy,” the older Nu Mou replied firmly. “She is safe in her chambers, and I have arranged for one of the adventurers to keep watch over her. And with that, I must go!”

Yet Beq Lugg could not rest easy. They had met with the adventurers of whom Sul Oul had spoken, and while they seemed an eminently capable bunch—one Beq Lugg had been happy to assist—they were, nonetheless, strangers to the land. And Pauldia’s life was at stake. Panic gripping their heart, they dashed out of their study, hells-bent on preventing their best and only friend from coming to harm.

But Beq Lugg was a scholar, not a fighter, and with monsters lurking around every corner, they could do little save scuttle between the shadows. Despite their best efforts, however, they soon found themself face-to-face with a slavering beast.

“M-Mercy!” they croaked, aghast.

“Out of the way, you stupid mutt!”

The silver-haired swordswoman was in front of them before Beq Lugg knew she was there, plunging her blade into the hideous creature, which seemed every bit as shocked as its prey. After watching it slump lifeless to the ground, the elf cast a cold glance at the cowering figure at her feet, then raced down the hall without so much as another word. If Beq Lugg was not mistaken, she was one of Ardbert’s companions—which meant she may be the selfsame adventurer to whom Sul Oul had entrusted Pauldia’s care!

Instantly forgetting the umbrage they had taken at being likened to a dog, they set off after the woman as fast as their legs could carry them, coming upon her just as she was kicking down the door to Pauldia’s private chambers.

“How dare you!?” Beq Lugg screamed, barging past the adventurer in search of their friend.

And there she was. Beq Lugg stood frozen. From behind them, the swordswoman advanced, her blade drawn.

“Too late, it would seem. All we can do now is put her out of her misery...”

The sight of the elf’s bloodstained blade was enough to shake Beq Lugg from their reverie.

“No! Have mercy on the girl, I beseech you!”

“Are you mad!?” the woman spat back. “Look at her arm! It’s already begun!”

Beq Lugg knew in their heart that the adventurer was right, yet they did not yield. They could not stand idly by and let their best friend—however hopeless her plight—be slaughtered before their eyes.

“Please, I—I have studied the secrets of the soul! I may very well be able to save her. You must spare her life! You must!”

It was a lie, of course. The process, once begun, was quite irreversible. Yet they had to try.

The adventurer gave the Nu Mou fairly clinging to her leg a searching look, then let out a sigh.

“This castle has a gaol, yes?”

Cursing all the while, the silver-haired swordswoman knocked Pauldia unconscious and carried her down to the dungeons, with Beq Lugg muttering directions. No sooner had she locked the door than she took to her heels, doubtless eager to join her companions in their search for the traitorous Tadric.

Beq Lugg, for their part, sat still as a stone in front of the cell, waiting for their friend to awaken. And when at last she did, it was with words unlike any they had heard her speak before.

“Hells take you, Tadric!” the girl seethed, her voice a feral snarl. “You promised me you would bury my sister and make me queen! I tricked that dog into divulging the secrets you craved—and you betrayed me!”

It was as if the girl could not see the friend of whom she spoke sitting there right before her eyes. Clawing at her skin, she began to daub the dungeon walls with glyphs in her own blood.

“Wretched sssister! Were it not for you, I could have lived in happiness with my family forever! Curse you, Sauldia! Curse your rotten soul!”

Beq Lugg had sat agog throughout the whole tirade, but at this they found their voice once more.

“Enough, Pia! Is your sister not part of the family you hold so dear!? How many times did you tell me how much you loved and admired her!?”

Slowly, the girl turned. Peering into her widened eyes, Beq Lugg could see a dawning realization, as if she were only now remembering things long forgotten.

“ are right... I...I love Father...and Mother...and my sister, too... Why...? Why did I...? What have I done...?”

As the words left her lips, she slumped forward, a shadowy mist beginning to seep from her body before dissipating into the air. In that moment, Beq Lugg saw the truth—that Tadric had bound the poor girl’s heart with dark magicks and forced her to do his bidding.

“Forgive me...Beq Lugg. My...friend...”

A tear tumbled from her cheek and struck the dank stone floor. When at length she raised her head, Beq Lugg saw that the curious glint in her eye had been extinguished. Only despair remained there, her stare a wordless cry for mercy.

Before the vesper bell tolled that day, Beq Lugg left the castle, never to return. And though Ardbert and his fellows succeeded in apprehending the architect of these tragedies, they could not save Sauldia from one final act of spite. Thus was the proud kingdom of Voeburt robbed of its heir and condemned to an age of decline. When the Flood came, it was a shadow of its former glory, all but powerless to defend itself against the sin eater hordes—and so did the kingdom fall, and fall for good.

It is claimed that poorest Pauldia was still in her cell on the day Gruenes Licht was finally abandoned. As for what became of the ill-starred princess after that, neither Beq Lugg—nor anyone—can say.