No Good End in View - Chapter 6 - not_whelmed_yet (2024)

Chapter Text

Reason returned to her when her axe hit dirt, like a knife to the gut. Coming back from a frenzy was a lot like a gut wound — the way there was something wrong with you, poison mixing with your blood. The sudden finality of it, as the anger bled out and left you empty and cold. She‘d tried to kill Mizora, and the only thing that had saved Wyll from her betrayal was the devil’s magic.

Her knees followed the axe to the dirt. Mizora was gone. That must be why the shield had vanished. Wyll was still there, she hadn’t taken him away.

But Wyll wasn’t human anymore. Horns had burst from his brow, twisted through years of growth to curl around his head, the flesh at their base pulped and oozing. Not a tiefling’s horns — proper horns, like a fiend would have. Karlach’s breath caught on a sob. Beneath the swelling and the oozing flesh she couldn’t tell what else had changed — was he taller now? Were those ridges along his cheeks? His eyelid was swollen shut and she could only hope there was actually an eye still beneath it, devilish or not.

Mizora couldn’t just magic someone into being a devil. That wasn’t how things worked. Souls went into the pits and the maggots ate them and they come out lemures. Lemures get promoted into devils. This had to be some kind of trick, some kind of mind game. Wyll had been in there, before she’d been torn away. He’d been hurt, half-mad with it, but he’d still been Wyll. She had to believe he was still Wyll.

It began to rain, a rush of cool water sheeting down on them, sizzling against her flesh. She looked up and found Gale standing above her, blue magic rising up from a rune circle drawn at his feet. Spilling up into the air above them, swirling, condensing, falling again. She held out her hands, cracked and blistered, and the cool water beat back some of the throbbing pain.

“Are you with us, Karlach?” Lae’zel asked, going to one knee beside her. She had a blanket bundled under one arm.

“Yes,” she said. “Gods. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to do that, I hoped it was — I hoped it was something the Hells were doing to me, not something that’d stick.”

“A warrior’s rage. Some soldiers are carried by passion, like the dragons they ride,” Lae’zel said. “It can be a valuable weapon.”

“I could have f*cking killed him,” Karlach said. She gulped a breath, trying not to start crying again. There wasn’t time for crying. If there was a way to save Wyll, that had to be their focus. “Now I have to be grateful that Mizora’s magic stopped me from doing it. That f*cking bitch.”

“I would gut her myself, if it would help Wyll,” Lae’zel said. “But guilt must wait. We will need your help.”

“Right.” She swallowed. “What do I do?”

“I will lift Wyll’s shoulders. Pull the blanket beneath him,” Lae’zel ordered. “The wizard’s water spell will stop the burns from continuing to cook his flesh, but we must keep the wounds clean to prevent infection.”

Wyll inhaled when Lae’zel’s hands touched his shoulders, but he didn’t try to escape her except to whine at the pain of it. They moved as quickly as they could, lifting him by inches and sliding the blanket beneath him. Lae’zel pointed out that Mizora had restored some of Wyll’s melted flesh before she planeshifted. That Wyll had a nose again, and both ears. That he had fingers, and not just stubs of charcoal and bone. That Mizora likely intended Wyll to survive, else there would have been no point in using restoration magic.

“He may yet die,” Lae’zel said, when they finished. “We were not prepared for an attack at night. The cleric exhausted herself and cannot cast healing magic. The wizard knows none. Our supply of potions will be insufficient. The wizard and I will return to the Druid grove for aid. From my training, I cannot say if he will survive till our return.”

“Wyll is strong,” Karlach said.

“So are many people who die.”

Shadowheart said: “If you’re not going to help, just go. We all know you’ve already given up.” She knelt down at Wyll’s head, three healing potions clutched in her hands. Only three.

Lae’zel rolled her eyes. “And let amateurs who thought ice on fresh burns should be our first plan of attack handle him? I have not given up, cleric. I hope he lives. I simply acknowledge that odds are against him. Do not!” Her hand shot out to catch Shadowheart’s as the cleric attempted to pour the healing potion over Wyll’s chest.

“What now?” Shadowheart hissed.

“By mouth only. His clothes have burnt and stuck to his flesh, the fragments will have to be picked from his skin so it does not heal over them and fester. Let the potion address what deeper wounds it can.”

Karlach shuddered at the thought, and even Shadowheart didn’t argue. But it was hard to feed a healing potion to someone barely conscious. Lae’zel had to prop his shoulders up, and Shadowheart fed it to him in small sips, worried he would choke. There was nothing Karlach could do to help without burning him further, so she crawled around the other side to check on Astarion.

Wyll had fallen onto his back at an angle, and the burn stretched from his left hip to just below his right shoulder. The flesh revealed in the aftermath was cooked like meat, his gambeson and fine cream shirt charred and stuck to the burn along the edges. By all rights, the fire that seared him should have caught his clothes and burned the rest of him, but it hadn’t. Hellfire was strange like that sometimes. Sticky. It stayed where you put it.

Gale’s water ritual had caught him under its spray, so hopefully that was helping. It had washed most of the blood off his face, the earth beneath them turning to mud and running over his hands as they lay limp against the ground. He was unconscious, she hoped, but his face was still tight with pain. His cheeks were still sunken with hunger, and it wasn’t f*cking fair that something awful had happened to him again, just when she was trying to make things right. “Can one of you help me with Astarion?” she asked.

“We have only three healing potions,” Lae’zel said. “You cannot suggest giving one to the vampire.”

Astarion. And no — I know, we can’t risk Wyll dying. I meant, can one of you help me get him onto a blanket? I don’t want to burn him.”

“We shouldn’t leave it near Wyll when he’s defenseless like this,” Shadowheart said. “Maybe Gale could restrain it again —”

“No,” Gale said. He must have finished the magic ritual, the drone of the incantations had been hard to hear over the thrum of rain. He stepped into the stream of it; hand held up over his brow in a half-hearted attempt to keep dry. They were all going to be soaked through after this. “I’m not going to do that, Shadowheart. You saw, same as I did. He was barely strong enough to lift his head before he was burned, how’s he going to bite Wyll? Karlach will stay here and keep them both safe, like we agreed.”

“If it was desperate —”

“He was desperate before,” Karlach said. “I know you’re scared of him, Shadowheart. Wish you wouldn’t let it make you mean like this.”

“You are all being delusional!” Shadowheart hissed. “So it’s suffered. So it’s suffering. Everyone suffers, that’s how life works! It doesn’t make it less dangerous, or less our enemy.”

“Restraining him when he’s defenseless and knows we know he’s terrified of us would make him more our enemy, though,” Gale said. “Besides. My magic isn’t limitless either. I need some to keep Lae’zel and I safe on our trip to the Emerald Grove and back. So the answer is no. Karlach can watch them.” Gale shook out one of the blankets they’d had Astarion propped up on, then paused to consider the maneuver.

“I can keep us safe without need of magic,” Lae’zel said, walking over to Astarion’s side. “But I agree. We will deal with the vampire once he awakes. We do not have time to squabble over plans already decided.” She took Astarion by the shoulders, and nodded for Gale to take his legs. They lifted him up and onto the blanket. Astarion almost roused at that, snapped weakly at Lae’zel’s arm. She pulled back out of reach and he whined, but made no attempt to follow her, laying boneless against the rough wool of the blanket. “Not a threat,” Lae’zel concluded.

They’d done all they could for Wyll and all they were willing to do for Astarion, so it was time for them all to squelch and drip across camp for their dinner of overcooked stew before Lae’zel and Gale headed off to the Grove.

It was the best thing she’d eaten in years, and one of the most bleak meals she’d had in a long time, even counting the Hells. Everyone was miserable, and miserable company weighed on you more when you’d seen them happy a few hours earlier. At least when a devil was miserable you knew they probably deserved it.

Speaking of:

“Did Mizora really turn Wyll into a devil?” Shadowheart asked. “I mean, the horns…he doesn’t look like a tiefling. No tail, for one.”

“Why would she make herself a more powerful enemy?” Lae’zel argued. “And he doesn’t have wings.”

Gale said, “Not all devils have wings, so I don’t think that tells us anything. I guess we’ll just have to hope he’s still Wyll when he wakes up.”

“He was,” Karlach said. “Down towards the end there, he was still Wyll.” And then she had to explain what she’d felt in the lower levels, that Wyll had been aware of the rest of them breaking free of the tadpole connection, his horror as they abandoned him. It really raised the mood. She confessed that she had no better idea than the rest of them how deep his infernal transformation went. “I mean, Mizora is Zariel’s lawyer. She’s not a big shot on her own. I didn’t think she has the authority to send a guy on a field trip through the Hells either, so who f*cking knows?”

“Once he’s recovered, I can use magic to detect evil and see if I pick up infernal traces on him,” Shadowheart said. “But that might not tell us the truth either. If she’s only gifted him a portion of infernal blood, he might still read as a fiend.”

“So ultimately, we’ll only know if Mizora comes back and says what she did,” Gale said.

“And only then if you manage to cast detect thoughts before she says it,” Shadowheart sighed. “I hate this.”

“Oh, come on, the stew’s not that bad,” Karlach teased. Nobody thought her joke was funny, though Gale did take it seriously enough to protest on the stew’s behalf.

They subsided back into silence. Lae’zel ate like she had pit fiends lurking over her shoulder, then got up to butcher the deer Wyll had caught for Astarion. Karlach finished next and got up to help her. People kept scolding her for doing things with her hands, like she hadn’t noticed they were burned. Yeah, she could have sat under the rain cloud with Wyll and Astarion, but her hands hurt a lot less than being useless did.

“What do we tell the druids?” Gale asked, suddenly. “We’re arriving at night, the gates will be closed. There needs to be an emergency to excuse our presence.”

“But they’re not likely to be more enthusiastic about helping a warlock than they are about the tieflings,” Shadowheart said. “And I fear the tieflings might be similarly hostile if they realize what Wyll is. Someone who willingly allied with the monsters that got them exiled from their homes? I don’t think we can risk bringing a healer or any of the tieflings back to camp, not until Wyll is able to defend himself.”

“We can defend him,” Karlach said. “We will defend him.”

Lae’zel said, “They know Karlach fled the hells and that we allied with her. We will tell them a devil was angered by our alliance and attacked him. They do not need further details.”

They considered that. Lae’zel laid out the cut meat in thick slabs, stripping out bones as she went. “Finish your meal or put it on ice, wizard. We should boil the bones into something Wyll can drink later, we’ll need the cookpot for that.”

Lae’zel gave directions for Shadowheart and Karlach to finish up preparing the meat. A hole dug beside the fire, lined with stones and covered with coals. The meat wrapped in its pelt and then packed in damp leaves and branches; buried to cook overnight. The offal Shadowheart incinerated with a few firebolts. Gale used prestidigitation to clean out the cookpot from the stew and they refilled it with fresh water. Karlach made the mistake of asking Gale to explain why cantrips could be used even when the spellcaster needed to rest before they could use other magic.

“Many scholars have devoted a great deal of time to that question,” Gale said. “The current consensus is that strong magic causes the spellcaster to channel the weave in ways that build up inside the brain. Sleep is the natural remedy for the clutter and damage of daily living and it seems to wash away the damage caused by spellcasting as well. Cantrips are formulated to be channeled less intimatel,y and they don’t cause the same sort of intense reaction. But if you used the same cantrip a hundred times, you might begin to feel that same way as overuse of regular spells. It’s a bit like a migraine, really. You always know when you should stop, because the world starts swimming…of course, that in turn has caused theories that migraine sufferers are actually natural magic users that haven’t noticed —”

“Wizard. Enough.” Lae’zel steered him away from Karlach. “Use one of your cantrips summon light so we may see the way as we walk. Flirt with Karlach later.”

They left camp in a twinkle of magelight and a rush of protests that Gale would never misuse scholarly curiosity in such a way. Camp felt even quieter and bleaker with them gone. Shadowheart and Karlach stared at each other from across camp. Karlach just didn’t have a good read on the little cleric. She was a good fighter, strong-willed and practical. She seemed loyal to Wyll. She was the most stubborn of the lot about Astarion, but if she hadn’t ceded to Karlach’s demands to heal him earlier in the night, Wyll might be stable now. “I don’t know how cantrips work,” Shadowheart said. “So don’t ask. Let’s get Wyll turned over.”

There was no good way to lay Wyll; he was burned everywhere. But they filled a bucket with cold water and used a cantrip to freeze it to slush; Karlach held her hands in there till she couldn’t bear it anymore and Shadowheart said they were cool to touch. Then they rolled Wyll over so his back was facing the stream of water. Shadowheart knelt and prayed over Wyll’s body, for strength, for resistance, for her god’s blessing. Karlach wasn’t sure, her prayers were all real quiet and mumbling.

Karlach left her to it and finished Lae’zel’s proscribed chores. The shovel handle was agony against her palms. She felt like she probably deserved it. She wasn’t usually the self-flagellating sort, but she’d never been in a situation like this before. What were you supposed to do with yourself when someone saved your life and got immolated for it? If someone offered her even the smallest favor in the Hells it was a prelude to some sort of scheme, usually them getting close to Zariel or f*cking with Zariel using her as a patsy. She wasn’t used to things being freely given. Especially not when the cost was this high. People didn’t do that. Maybe Wyll wasn’t right in the head. You had to be messed up to sign on as a warlock, right? They didn’t take the well-adjusted.

That didn’t make her feel better.

Shadowheart came back and helped her gather green wood for the roast. When Karlach tried to take up the shovel again, Shadowheart stole it. She made Karlach wash her hands off, complaining about the broken blisters, and banished her to sit by Wyll and Astarion while she finished the work. Though she was still calling Astarion “the vampire.”

After Shadowheart finished, they turned Wyll back over. Like a hog on a spit you had to rotate so it cooked evenly; except the opposite of that. Shadowheart set her bedroll up in the light of the fire, rather than under her makeshift tent. After a long while of tossing and turning, she even seemed to fall asleep.

Karlach waited. Shadowheart didn’t move. She was pretty far away, really, since they’d had Astarion outside of camp for fear of him manipulating their tadpoles. After a bit, Karlach decided to risk that she was really asleep and crept back into camp. She collected the wooden mug she’d been given for the stew, and the knife from Wyll’s pack that she’d been using to help Lae’zel with butchering. She undid the buckles on her left bracer and set the knife to it. The blood that dripped into the mug steamed, but it looked like normal blood. When she dipped her fingernail in and tasted it, it tasted like blood. Gross. It was worth a try. She let the blood drip till the cut started to clot, then returned to the rain.

One hand over the top of the mug kept the water out. A bandage swiped from the stack, dipped inside, let her brush fresh blood across Astarion’s lips.

His tongue darted out, tasted. One red eye slitted open, then the other. They seemed to glow in the low light, reflecting the distant fire like a cat’s. He licked his lips clean, then licked them again, compulsively. He rasped: “What did I say about not offering things you can’t give me, darling?”

“It’s my blood, I can give it to whoever I want,” Karlach said, tried to keep her voice down so Shadowheart wouldn’t wake. “I’m going to get you a healing potion later, I swear. It’s just we only had a few, and Wyll’s in a bad way.”

“He’s alive?” The surprise seemed to startle Astarion fully awake.

“Still breathing,” Karlach said. Then she looked at Wyll, watched his chest move for a moment to make sure it was still true. She’d been watching him breathe earlier, just letting the rise and fall of his chest tell her that they hadn’t lost him yet. Wyll shivered slightly under the stream of cool water.

When she looked back, Astarion was staring at Wyll too, with a face that she didn’t know how to interpret. Incredulous? He looked almost angry. Of course, Astarion had good reason to be afraid of Wyll. If someone had treated her like that, however good their reasons, she might have been happy to see them burn. “Do you think he’s going to stay that way?” Astarion asked. Then, to clarify, “Breathing, I mean.”

“That’s why the rest of them have gone. They’re getting supplies, help.”

“Humans are just so fragile,” Astarion breathed. Even though he could see the horns on Wyll’s head as well as she could.

“He’s going to be fine,” she said. If she kept saying it, she’d believe it. “So what do you think, Astarion? Nobody here awake except the two of us, nobody has to know. You thirsty?”

He craned his head up, chin resting on the blanket. “I had never been so full in my life, you know. A deer! But it does seem to burn off quickly, when you’re on fire. I could manage a nightcap, I think. Just a taste.” He smiled at her, all teeth. And, oh, that’s what she’d been missing when he was nothing but bones and hunger earlier. Even in what had to be some of the worst pain of his life, half flayed by hellfire, there was an edge to his tongue now.

Or maybe it wasn’t that he was less hungry. Maybe it was that she’d told him that everyone who’d hurt him was away or asleep or semi-comatose. Either way, she liked the thought that this funnier, irreverent version of Astarion still existed, not just the cringing and terrified skeleton he’d been when they took the gag out. She’d like to find a way to keep him around.

She considered logistics for a moment. Astarion might be able to lift himself a bit, but not without bending his back. That would hurt. On the other hand, drinking from a cup while laid flat on his stomach seemed tricky. “How…I could soak the cloth in the blood and you could suck it out,” she suggested.

“Ugh. You sound like Dalyria,” Astarion said. “Let’s not. Just pour slowly.” He opened his mouth, let his tongue loll out over his bottom lip. She poured out a little blood on his tongue, and he swallowed it a flutter of lashes. They repeated the procedure, Astarion making those little noises that made her want to rub her thighs together, till the cup was too empty to pour. At which point his hands grabbed for the cup and he used one long finger to wipe it clean, sucking her blood off his fingers in single-minded intensity. She thought he might be blushing. She was lucky she’d never shown a flush and it would have been too dark to see regardless.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re delicious?” Astarion asked. “Karlach, was it? Karlach. A fine spiced cider, your blood is. Best I’ve ever had.”

“I’m sure you tell all the girls that, you charmer,” Karlach said.

“I don’t usually make conversation with my dinners, actually.”

Right. Because Astarion was, for all that she wanted very much to like him and her hormones wanted very much to jump him, a predator. And he usually killed his dinners dead. Wyll had been right, in a way. It was easy to forget that Astarion was dangerous when you were talking to him. The conversation died for a minute there, dead like everyone who’d ever ended up Astarion’s dinner.

He interrupted with a question. “Are the clothes a lost cause, then?”

There wasn’t much left of it, the frilly shirt Astarion had been wearing or the embroidered gambeson he’d had over top. The front had already been burned through in spots and torn up with cuts, and now the back was burnt clear off. “Well I can see your whole back through the hole, so I think so. You’d be more patch than shirt, if you asked a seamstress to fix that.”

“Ah,” he said. “Do I look like Wyll, then? Overdone steak?”

“Less well done than Wyll,” she said. “I did push him off of you.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Another gift. Add it to my ledger, darling.”

“I’m not much for maths,” Karlach said, dismissing the joke.

“Do you think it will scar?” he asked.

“Dunno. It would if you were a tiefling,” she said. “Mine did. But I don’t know how vampires work.”

“And our resident expert is out of commission,” Astarion said with venom. Then, more quietly: “Usually it takes some creativity to make a scar stick. I just hoped…I suppose it would be hideous.”

Ouch. But she wasn’t sure Astarion had even gotten a good look at her earlier, and it was near full-dark now. Maybe he hadn’t noticed how much of her had been lost to melted burns. Maybe he was a self-centered asshole. It was fine, it wasn’t like the burns mattered much compared to the engine jammed in her chest. She’d never gotten to be hot in the good way, fallen straight from teenage awkwardness and zits into a horrorshow. “Nobody will see it,” she said, “unless you insist on going shirtless all the time.”

“All the time, for the last three days of our lives? Or did no one mention the timeline on our impending…transformations? I don’t suppose you keep your scars as a mindflayer, anyway.”

“Wonder what would happen to the hardware?” She contemplated the mental image of the engine bursting out of her chest, like a tangle of shipwreck sticking out of the harbor, coated in blood instead of barnacles. Never mind. She was going to not contemplate that. “We’re going to make it. Lots of smart people here, we’re going to figure out a solution.”

Astarion made a noise, sort of like the sound imps made when you stepped on them. Like an indignant deflating balloon.

And: okay. Fair.

“Smart about non-vampire stuff, I mean,” she said. “They have a lot of ideas for sorting out this whole tadpole thing and I, for one, refuse to die. I just got free! It’d be a f*cking waste to kick it now.”

Astarion’s hands clenched against the blanket, then released slowly. He didn’t say anything, so maybe she’d permanently ruined the mood and the conversation was over. She wasn’t used to having to watch her big f*cking mouth; up until five days ago she could say whatever she wanted to whoever she wanted, as long as they weren’t Zariel they couldn’t do sh*t to her.

One of the few pleasures in Avernus was verbally curbstomping lesser devils. Physically stomping them was also up there. And soul coins…but none of those things mattered anymore because she was in the real world now. And there were better pleasures to be had, even if her chest felt empty in that pounding, gut-clenching way that only soul coins ever seemed to help. She was getting a clean break. The Karlach of Avernus was done, the Karlach of Faerûn was ready for her second shot. Even if that second chance was paid for by someone else.

She was staring at Wyll again, watching his chest rise and fall. He wasn’t allowed to die. He just wasn’t. And watching him breathe was better than letting her eyes roam over the rest of him, because her eye kept catching on sh*t she didn’t want to see.

“You knew his devil,” Astarion said, startling her so badly that her engine flared, hissing against the rain. When she looked back, Astarion had laid his cheek back down against the blanket so he could look at Wyll.

“Yeah, I know her. Mizora.”

“She said my devil — well. My sire’s devil. She said he was Mephistopheles. Do you know if they’re…friends? Allies? Do you think she’ll tell him where I am?”

“Not out of the goodness of her heart, that’s for sure,” Karlach said. She considered what she knew about Mephistopheles: basically nothing, except that he was an Archdevil, very good at hellfire, and master of Cania. She didn’t think Zariel had any alliances with him, but Zariel didn’t talk to Karlach about alliances and strategy. Karlach was a point-and-shoot sort of weapon. “She might, if it profits her. But if your sire is doing demon sh*t with an Archdevil he could have found you anyway using divination magic.”


He didn’t look upset. Just blank. Like he’d expected her to say something like that and hadn’t bothered to hope for anything better. Like he’d fallen into the River Lethe and everything good had just washed away in it. She didn’t like it. She also didn’t like the idea of whatever kind of asshole vampire that stole people’s hearts and bartered them to Archdevils showing up and stealing Astarion back.

She backpedaled. “Unless the tadpoles, like, interfere with that! Which they might. I mean, Mizora should have been able to lead Wyll straight to me, but she let him wander around for days until we happened to run into each other. And even if he could find you, what, is your sire going to come rough it out in the woods? That doesn’t sound like a very fancy-pants vampire thing to do. I thought they all hated nature-stuff.” And spent most of their time in velvet-lined coffins in pretentious gothic castles, but she wasn’t sure if that was real or just the stuff they put in the novels so she wasn’t going to embarrass herself further by suggesting that.

“No,” Astarion agreed dully. “He’ll pay someone else to fetch me back instead. A hunter, or a warlock.” He kept staring at Wyll. “You shouldn’t blame him for making stupid decisions and getting himself crisped, really. His mind is a mess. Too much being yanked around by his demonic mistress. Too many compulsions.

“Which you know from trying to mind-control him.”

“I didn’t have to try. It was easy. And then I knew he was a hunter, and a warlock, and if there was anyone my master would contract to bring me back — I might — I might have panicked. A trifle. So if you could, darling, whatever else they decide: I’ll agree to anything if I don’t have to go back to him. Anything you want. Anything at all.” His voice kept that River Lethe emptiness that made her want to put someone’s head through a wall.

“Nobody is selling you back to your sire,” she promised. “I’ll make sure of it.” She wanted to say Wyll wouldn’t have, ever, either, but she’d seen him waver with his hand on his sword, trying to decide whether or not to kill her. He hadn’t, and she was f*cking grateful for that. But if she’d been a blood-spattered vampire, and Mizora didn’t say where she was going to take the wayward spawn…she didn’t like that what if.

She wasn’t sure if Astarion believed her, but she’d made her position clear. If he didn’t believe her she’d just have to prove it. They lapsed into another long silence measured by Wyll’s shallow breaths. In her head, she tried to trace how long the walk to the Grove was, how long it had been since Lae’zel and Gale had set out. Time passed quietly away from Zariel’s army, where demon criers and gongs had tracked every moment of your day, dragged you from rest and to the frontline and back again. It wasn’t that she was nostalgic for it, she was so glad to be away from everything about that place. But her mind kept waiting for the screech of a crier.

That was the thing that was seductive about the Hells. You didn’t have to think about anything. You could let yourself go through the motions and let your superiors make all the decisions and let them use you and disappear into the roar of violence. Think just one step ahead. Next crier you’d take your boots off, lay down on the ground and pass out. Next crier you’d pay the toll to a fiend for them to purify water for you. Next crier you’d go back under and let the rage take you, hope you surfaced less hungry and that you didn’t remember anything about how that happened.

Her promotion to general had been a punishment from Zariel, who’d thought it less fun when Karlach fell too deep into those routines. The title had been a farce — every title was endlessly inflated in the Hells, so even an imp might be commander, so that his commander could be a general and their commander a warlord. She was still given her orders, only left to struggle and figure out how to carry them out, how to keep her cohort from cannibalizing each other. She kept the criers, she just lost most of the shifts she’d spent asleep to an endless slog of meetings and discipline and accounting, the hells devils made for themselves.

It was going to be different. She wouldn’t have orders anymore, just allies. She had to push down the instinct to look for a commander amongst them. Lae’zel spoke like she expected to be obeyed, Wyll had a weight to his words. But they weren’t her commanders, she didn’t have to do what they said.

“How long is that damned wizard’s water torture going to keep dripping on us?” Astarion asked.

“I think it goes till he dispels it, it’s a ritual spell,” she said. The water was nice, pleasantly cool against her skin, like a drumbeat. But when she looked, Astarion was shivering under it, lips paled to grey. “Lae’zel said it was good to cool off the burn as much as possible, so it doesn’t get worse,” she explained.

“I’m familiar with the concept,” Astarion said. He said, in the low rush of a messenger who expects the message will be poorly received, “But I think you’re supposed to stop at some point. Dalyria always said a quarter hour was plenty and more than that was delaying the inevitable, because it does hurt so much more when you take it out of the water. Never one to let her pity run away with her. But your monster hunter has stopped shivering, and it’s quite cold, and I don’t think that’s a good sign with humans.”

And sh*t. He was right. You couldn’t see Wyll go pale without skin to read, but the shaking had stilled completely. She hadn’t been given orders for what to do if that happened. Her vents flared again, reminding her that the rain had stopped sizzling on her skin some time past. That if she felt comfortably cool, Wyll and Astarion must be bloody cold.

She risked lifting Wyll, two layers of sodden wool blankets to keep him safe as she carried him back out of the rain. He moaned with the pain of movement but didn’t wake. Shadowheart didn’t either, so either Karlach was a lot quieter than she thought or resting all your spell slots back absolutely knocked you out.

Karlach settled Wyll back on the ground and fell back on the faint memory of her dad trying to get her little brother, the one who didn’t make it out of childhood, settled on his sickbed. Legs elevated with a blanket to keep more blood in his heart. She couldn’t pile blankets on top of him or set him close to the fire but she could give him something sweet and warm for him to drink, warm him up from the inside. Lae’zel had left her with a bottle of fresh-pressed cider for if Wyll woke, she could warm it against her body, get Wyll to drink from a soaked bandage the way Astarion had sneered at.

She returned to the water spell, appreciating the fresh flush of cool water against her skull, her soaked hair already warm from the short time she’d spent outside.

When she lifted Astarion he made a noise of surprised pleasure, and when she tried to set him down on the ground he protested. “Just a little longer, darling? You’re wonderfully warm.”

She pointed out that she’d be heating up even more now that she was out of the water spell, that she might burn him. He pointed out the presence of a wet wool blanket between them to buffer the heat, promised that he’d warn her if he was in danger of burning. Somehow she agreed to his foolishness, those damn eyes getting her again. She ended up sitting beside Wyll with a bottle of cider between her thighs and a vampire draped over her lap like a cat, gone all liquid by the heat.

Getting the cider into Wyll without choking him was an ordeal, but after the first few offerings of the soaked bandage he woke up enough to drink from the bottle. She went slowly, and after a bit he started to shiver again in the night air. She guessed that was a victory, though it made him look even more uncomfortable. He mumbled and whined at her, too deep in the pain to wake fully or recognize her. She wished the others would hurry up. Astarion, for his part, slipped into whatever elves did instead of sleep and was peevish when she tried to wake him to shift him off her lap. “It’s warm,” he whined.

“I don’t want to burn you,” Karlach said, feeling rather outmatched by the trials of playing nursemaid.

“I’m not burning, I’m warm. It’s nice,” he said, rubbing his face into the wool over her thigh. He seemed almost drunk with it. “I haven’t been warm like this since…I can’t remember. I can feel my fingers. You’re wonderful.”

And so he was still on her lap, the blanket between them steaming gently, when Lae’zel and Gale arrived back at camp. Lae’zel raised an eyebrow, but didn’t otherwise comment. “We were delayed,” she said. “You moved him out of the water. Did he get chilled?”

“I think so,” Karlach said. “I’ve been getting him to drink, a little, like you said. What were you able to get?”

“Their potion-seller lives outside the grove, so she was not available. Their annoying bard has gone missing as well. But we woke the short man and their herbalist, and many tieflings. Most were useless.”

Gale sat down and swung the pack over onto his lap. “But we were able to exchange currency and the tiefling’s regard for Wyll into many of the things we were looking for. No greater healing potions or elixirs, unfortunately. But several lesser ones, and Arron thought this might help him!” He held up a small frosted glass vial, filled with a golden liquid. “An elixir of fire resistance. Rather too late, but it should stop the burns from progressing further even if we keep him warm by the fire.”

They dispensed out the potions — the best healing they had for Wyll, then two more besides, followed by the fire elixir. Lae’zel insisted on scrubbing off Karlach’s hands, muttering under her breath about the open blisters she’d given herself, before applying the healing potion directly to her palms. It itched like bugs crawling over her skin for a full intolerable minute as the magic sank in, but when she rubbed the blistered skin away there was baby-soft new skin beneath. “Thanks,” she said, rubbing her hands together more to try and make the lingering sensation go away.

Shadowheart woke in the commotion and wandered over, tried again to use a healing spell to no success. She blinked blearily at them, then looked up at the sky and over at the fire. Stared at Astarion, cuddled up on Karlach’s lap. “I’m going back to sleep,” she announced. “Be quieter.”

Lae’zel sneered something under her breath, but there was little left to talk about. Gale dispensed with the water ritual after they filled the waterskins and buckets, stirred the broth simmering over the fire, and was sent to bed as well to recover his spells for the next day. Karlach was starting to lose steam as well, teetering from anxiety to exhaustion as Lae’zel announced that Wyll would live through the night.

“Will the vampire bite me if I tend to his back?” Lae’zel asked quietly.

“He might if you call him ‘the vampire’,” Astarion mumbled into Karlach’s leg. He still seemed half-asleep, though he’d woken a little when the other’s returned.

“May Lae’zel treat your back?” Karlach asked him.

“If she promises not to cut my head off,” Astarion said. “Or stab me in the eye. And she’s gentle with the clothes. I can repair the back if I open up the sleeves…”

“I will not cut your head off or stab you if you hold still and mind your teeth,” Lae’zel promised. “The shirt must be cut off.”

Astarion grumbled about that, but didn’t protest further. Lae’zel sliced through the back of the neckline of his gambeson and shirt, then around the edges of the burn with a knife to free it from the skin. Astarion held himself incredibly still as she worked the knife, the fear seeping back into his frame. But once Lae’zel set the knife aside and returned with a damp rag and the crudely forged tweezers she’d gotten at the grove he relaxed again, seemingly content to ignore the pain of her washing and then picking over the ruined flesh for embedded fabric. Either the burn had gone so deep over most of his back that he couldn’t feel it, or he had some incredible pain tolerance.

He relaxed so much that Karlach found herself getting sleepy again, slumping against the packs Gale had left. She wasn’t asleep, she was still aware of the click of Lae’zel’s tweezers, the measured rhythm of her breathing. When she finished and poured the healing potion over Astarion’s back, she felt him shiver against the itch of it. Then Laezel was back to Wyll’s side, and everyone was safe and there was no crier to tell her the shift was over, that she could sleep. But she sank down into it anyways.

No Good End in View - Chapter 6 - not_whelmed_yet (2024)
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