Tove glanced out across the wind-sculpted snow and frowned. Everything about the Bjora Marches set her on edge, akin to catching a whiff of rot at random intervals.
Or perhaps that was exactly what was happening. It was hard to tell, sometimes.
“How do you intend to study the Boneskinners?” Rikvi shifted restlessly from one foot to another, a strange and restless movement for the big shaman.
Tove had a moment of regret for asking her eldest cousin to accompany her. Doubtless if this place made _her_ itch, it was even worse for the Raven Shaman. And yet if she couldn’t have Cap at her side while striding into danger, there were few others she’d choose as gladly.
“I have no fucking clue.”
Rikvi sighed, deeply. “Ah. Vigil.”
Tove shrugged. “I mean I have a plan, I’m just not sure it’ll work. I’m not…you, or Fiel, I’m just…me. A skaald and ranger who’s picked up some druid magic along the way, but without ever really understanding it. And then I took it and…did different things with it, on instinct, because I’m a Norn and not some human traipsing around the jungle. So like…I don’t know. I’m just gonna….noodle about with my magic and see what happens.”
“Mmm,” Rikvi said. “Well, as long as you write it down, I suppose.”
Tove snorted softly. “Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
The sour look she got was absolutely worth it.
Tove wedged herself in a tree. She liked trees, they were strong, and also very…connected.
Look, it made sense in a druid sort of way.
Rikvi shook her head at the methodology and took up her place as a watchful sentinel below.
Tove closed her eyes, snuggling up in a fur she’d brought with before reaching out with her magic.
And instantly regretted _everything_.
Down below, Rikvi side-stepped. Moments later Tove leaned over the side of her branch and vomited, caught off guard by the nauseating combination of a sense of rot, as well as overwhelming hunger. Caught off guard, it felt like she really needed to eat rotting meat crawling with maggots. Ugh.
The shaman casually kicked snow over the result while Tove whined and drank water.
“Well, this is going to be awful.”
“And yet you proceed.”
“Well, the alternative is possibly horrifying so, yeah. The things I do for love, et cetera, et cetera.”
Rikvi, meanwhile, suddenly tilted her head as if listening for something.
A crackle on Tove’s radio.
“Tove, do you copy?” said the familiar voice of Fiel. “Are you already in the forest?”
Tove yelped and almost dropped the radio. “Regretfully, yes,” she replied. “Why, are you coming to join the party?”
“Yes. Sit tight, I’ll come to you.”
Several minutes passed, until there was a rustling from the canopy. A dark, gaunt, and surprisingly better-smelling –compared to the general odor of rot permeating from the forest– undead skyscale slowly descended from the sky, and on in, was the necromancer. He jumped onto a neighboring branch of the giant tree and silently gestured for the dragon to go perch somewhere else, out of sight.
“Any luck?” he spoke quietly, offering a small wave at Rikvi below.
Rikvi gave a small wave back before returning to her sentinel duties. Although a strangely fluffy patch of snow off to her left suggested that Randulfr was here, as well.
“Not yet. Trying to poke at the magic out here is revolting. I have to get over the urge to vomit first–”
“Merely the urge?”
“Cousin,” Tove said warningly.
Rikvi merely glanced up, green eyes innocently wide, and promptly got a load of snow in her face. She shook it off and looked betrayed.
“That’s right. Raven won’t save you from the consequences of sassing me,” Tove said, before settling back into her little tree crook nook with a sigh. “…anyway, I haven’t had a chance to get anywhere yet. I’m just sort of poking about as my gut guides me, which I’ve been told is horribly unscientific but it’s what I’ve got.”
Fiel took a deep breath, evidently undisturbed by the foul air. (Even with the fresh addition of the Tove-flavored bile.)
“You should consider building an immunity to poisons. It has its perks,” he muttered loud enough for Tove to hear. “If not, invest in a gas mask,” he added as he scanned the line of trees surrounding them.
After a moment of silent observation he continued:
“Things quieted down on the northern front since the… alliance with Jormag.” He spat the word. Of all the foul things crawling about in the forest, this was what made his nose wrinkle. “I suspected it, but I didn’t want to believe it. We… might not come upon any icebrood today. Deer-headed or not.”
He sniffed, and gathered his cloak tight around his neck. With him sitting cross-legged on a thick branch with his large raven-shaped cape hanging at each side of his body like a giant pair of wings, he looked like a big, shivering bird.
“Unless we’re… lucky.”
“Mind if I brain-storm out loud?” he said, suddenly turning to her. “I’ve had months to think on my own, but I could use a couple more fresh brains to bounce theories at.”
“Go ahead,” Tove replied. “Although I’ll be trying to magically poke about in the meantime. Truce or not, they should still be around and I hope to get a look at one. Figuratively.”
She closed her eyes. It was in the nature of druid magic to want to connect with the world around her. It was just also revolting, but she’d have to get over it. Maybe if she just lightly skimmed the life web and looked for bigger sources of wrongness?
Maybe listening to Fiel would distract her enough to not be entirely grossed out again.
Fiel took a deep breath. This was about to get rambly.
“At first, I treated it as any old corruption: a dragon’s will, and the will of the creature it had corrupted. In our case: the bonneskinner –or whatever it was before that. This corrupted entity, this puppet of the dragon, held another will, another piece of soul: Cap’s.”
“When he did that… thing… with his shadow magic? He effectively exchanged a bit of his soul with a fragment of the corrupted will of that boneskinner. A cross-contamination, if you will. The stain spread in Cap, turned him Icebrood. While his piece of soul remained in the ‘skinner… until we killed it.”
“Afterwards, everything went back in its proper place. Cap was whole, and the boneskinner… dissipated. Whatever was left in that thing was either destroyed, or moved on to its proper place in the Mists, if it was still able to do so. Except for the corruption that had attached to his piece of soul.”
The norn sighed.
“By the time we got to him, that piece was already corrupted. Warped. And worse: it was contagious. Even if Cap was whole, he was still at a risk of turning into a boneskinner himself. So I ripped that piece out again… and stuffed it into my golem.”
He hissed. Damn, that place was cold.
“You remember how he was after that? Fractured. Broken. Unhinged. Hells, he might still be. But somehow, he found a new balance. He’s functioning. He talks, he cracks jokes. And I honestly cannot explain how.”
“Is it because he doesn’t need that piece of soul? Is it the same as when a limb gets amputated? Painful, itchy.. but otherwise manageable? Or is it because I put my golem in stasis? Put that shard of the boneskinner –and Cap’s– to sleep? Not to mention…”
He turned to Tove.
“I didn’t tell you… Waffles. My golem. It’s been growing. Changing. It sprouted antlers. Antlers, for fuck’s sake!!” he was whisper-shouting, and the trembling in his voice was not entirely due to the cold. “I had to add new bindings. More chains. More spells. It’s asleep, but it’s transforming… I didn’t say that to Brant the other day. I… I couldn’t.”
He rubbed his face vigorously. He didn’t want the tears in his eyes to freeze over his face.
“I’ve been making sure to keep the corruption at bay. Cleansed it regularly. But it’s like changing the bandages on a half-rotten limb. It will consume him, eventually. There’s no two ways about it: either we destroy it now, destroy it utterly –even Cap’s soul shard– and hope for the best. Lest we want to deal with another boneskinner –a boneskinner with a broken mind and multiple personalities, no fucking less… and a possible norn with half a soul– or else we find a way to cleanse it for good.”
“Of course Cap mentioned how the boneskinner corruption could be even more complex than the simple elder dragon/mortal victim cases we’re used to… which makes pinpointing the source of it even more complicated… so we kill Jormag, thus removing a HUGE part of the corruption and making my job easier –but the chances of that right now are… well…”
“Another solution that came to mind…” he turned to Tove. “We break the dragon’s influence directly. Like they did with Glint.”
Well okay, so much for trying to multitask. Fiel got Tove’s attention minus one little tendril of magic out there feeling disgusted.
“The soul is a weird thing,” Tove said slowly. “Although I don’t profess to know much about it.” She paused, musing.
“Honestly, it sounds as if your golem is turning into a boneskinner itself. Which as you said, is Cap’s fate if that nasty little bit of shard goes back to him.” She rubbed her face as well, letting out a weary sigh. “Why, of all people, do I fall in love with the most cursed–” she trailed off into inaudible muttering.
“…anyway. So we either find a way to cleanse the shard, or we destroy it and hope for the best. Hngh. You’re right–killing Jormag would possibly make things a lot easier, as well as being extremely satisfying. But that’s unlikely to happen right now, not with Primordius on the move. Perhaps Jormag would still be our focus–but with the Asura willing to just fucking IGNORE him and work WITH him in order to get their own personal vendetta settled? Fuck the Norn and the Charr, I guess, but whatever.”
She pulled her furs up higher around her shoulders, but there’s no warding off the chill of dread. “How could we even break the dragon’s influence? I don’t really know anything about what happened with Glint.”
“You should try reading sometime,” Rikvi drawled from below.
“I read all the time, just not your boring shit,” Tove muttered in reply, even as she was aware that Rikvi had meant to get her goat. Goat gotten. Fuck.
“The Forgotten cleansed Glint,” Rikvi said, tapping her staff on the ground. “Of course, the Forgotten are also gone–from this world. It is possible that a few could be tracked down in the Mists. What is left of the Mists, at any rate. And it just so happens that I study the Mists extensively, so let us not write that off as an avenue. Otherwise we can try approaching the Exalted, as they may know something of the process.”
Fiel pointed at Rikvi. Right on the money.
“If we could contact a Forgotten who’s been involved in that ritual, or even Glint herself, we could. Would they be willing to hear us? It remains to be seen. The Exalted might be an easier option –they are literally our neighbors back at the Hollow– but are they even privy to the details of that ritual? Other option would be… we go to Orr. To Arah. Where Glint was liberated long before the Six Gods even set foot on Tyria. To sniff around the altar and try figuring things out. I heard a sylvari cleansed a Risen chicken there once. But our chicken would be a lot harder to liberate.”
He let out an overwhelmed sigh.
“Fuck that’s a lot of old, old magic to rediscover… just to help one asshole.”
“Yeah, but he’s our asshole,” Tove sighed.
“And that is not to say that what we learn will not help others,” Rikvi said slowly. “If we document it, there may be others suffering from corruption who could yet be saved, as well as future uses.”
Tove thought of some of the muttering members of the Vigil she had encountered and flinched.
“Also, I would rediscover old magic to help zero assholes, and then write five papers about it with joy in my heart, so I will not exactly let that deter me.”
“That’s because you’re a huge nerd, Rikvi.”
“This is true. But do not act as if you are not just as scholarly, even if you do not write down what you study.”
There was a moment of silence, only perturbed by Fiel’s sniffling.
“… I fucking hate this place,” Fiel mumbled. “Can’t focus here.”
He shifted over his branch.
“I have half a mind to go out there and just… *scream* until one of them comes out. How about you?” he asked, only half-joking.
“I want to run out there screaming, yes. I want to run at every Icebrood and punch them, and set every Boneskinner aflame. I want to run right up to Jormag and kick him in his stupid face, which wouldn’t go very well for me but would be extremely satisfying.” Tove tugged on her ponytail, absently missing her braids. “There is so much here that is wrong that it both enrages me and tears my heart apart at the same time.”
“I can’t believe that we’re going to ally with the icy bastard while we deal with Primordius. He has taken so much from our people, so much from us personally that I just–nnngh! If I can just…just take this one THING back…”
Rikvi let Tove’s ranting trail into silence, drifting off to be eaten by the snow. “We could divvy our efforts,” she suggested. “I tackle things from the Mists. Fiel hunts Arah. And you study the Boneskinners here. This would play to our respective strengths, I think.”
Fiel pondered for a moment.
Yeah he just got there, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t eager to leave already.
“Arah would be safe enough, and I can’t speak for the Mists much… but Tove, would you be ok with staying here?”
“Do I like it? No. Will I? Yes. If I feel too vulnerable I’ll get more help, don’t worry. And I’m not completely by myself anyway,” she said, nodding towards the lump of snow that was Randulfr.
Fiel didn’t require any more coaxing. He carefully stood up on his branch.
“Alright, I’m going to Arah then.” He looked up, silently calling his ride through that mystical mental bond that linked necromancers to their creations.
“I will keep my radio on. Let me know what happens,” he said, before saddling up and disappearing through the canopy.
Rikvi glanced up at Tove. “Do you wish me to go now, or shall I wait?”
Tove sighed deeply and shrugged. “I leave it up to you.”
“I think I will stand here and gather my thoughts for a bit, then.” And the two women lapsed into silence.
There was a lot of magic to be done.