|Title||The Eternal Hunters|
|Release Date||October 14, 2015|
|540 (+ 85)|
|7 (+ 0.55)|
|300 (+ 35)|
|7 (+ 0.4)|
|65 (+ 2.5)|
|0.625 (+ 3.5%)|
|29 (+ 3.5)|
|30 (+ 0.5)|
|Game Info Wiki||leagueoflegends.fandom.com|
Kindred is a champion in League of Legends.
- Story #1
- Story #2
- Story #3
|Separate, but never parted, Kindred represents the twin essences of death. Lamb’s bow offers a swift release from the mortal realm for those who accept their fate. Wolf hunts down those who run from their end, delivering violent finality within his crushing jaws. Though interpretations of Kindred’s nature vary across Runeterra, every mortal must choose the true face of their death.
Kindred is the white embrace of nothingness and the gnashing of teeth in the dark. Shepherd and the butcher, poet and the primitive, they are one and both. When caught on the edge of life, louder than any trumpeting horn, it is the hammering pulse at one’s throat that calls Kindred to their hunt. Stand and greet Lamb’s silvered bow and her arrows will lay you down swiftly. If you refuse her, Wolf will join you for his merry hunt, where every chase runs to its brutal end.
For as long as its people have known death, Kindred has stalked Valoran. When the final moment comes, it is said a true Demacian will turn to Lamb, taking the arrow, while through the shadowed streets of Noxus, Wolf leads the hunt. In the snows of the Freljord, before going off to fight, some warbands “kiss the Wolf” vowing to honor his chase with the blood of their enemies. After each Harrowing, the town of Bilgewater gathers to celebrate its survivors and honor those granted a true death by Lamb and Wolf.
Denying Kindred is to deny the natural order of things. There are but a wretched few who have eluded these hunters. This perverse escape is no sanctuary, for it only holds a waking nightmare. Kindred waits for those locked in the undeath of the Shadow Isles, for they know all will eventually fall to Lamb’s bow or Wolf’s teeth.
The earliest dated appearance of the eternal hunters is from a pair of ancient masks, carved by unknown hands into the gravesites of people long-forgotten. But to this day, Lamb and Wolf remain together, and they are always Kindred.
|“Tell me again, little Lamb, which things are ours to take?”|
“All things, dear Wolf.”
|FOREST FOR THE TREES
The battle spilled over like a feast before them. Such delicious life—so many to end, so many to hunt! Wolf paced in the snow while Lamb danced lithely from sword edge to spear tip, the red-blooded butchery never staining her pale coat.
“There is courage and pain here, Wolf. Many will gladly meet their end.” She drew up her bow and let loose an arc of swift finality.
The last breath of a soldier came with a ragged consent as his shield gave way to a heavy axe. Stuck in his heart was a single white arrow, shimmering with ethereal brilliance.
“Courage bores me” the great black wolf grumbled as he tracked through the snow. “I am hungry and eager to chase.”
“Patience” she murmured in his shaggy ear. As soon as the words left her, Wolf’s shoulders tensed and his body dropped low to the ground.
“I smell fear” he said, trembling with excitement.
Across the muddied field of snow, a squire—too young for battle, but with blade in hand, nonetheless—saw that Kindred had marked all in the valley.
“I want the tender-thing. Does it see us, Lamb?”
“Yes, but it must choose. Feed the Wolf, or embrace me.”
The battle turned its steel toward the squire. He now stared at the roiling tide of bravery and desperation coming for him. This would be his last dawn. In that instant, the boy made his choice. He would not go willingly. Until his last breath, he would run.
Wolf snapped in the air and rolled his face in the snow like a new pup.
“Yes, dear Wolf.” Lamb’s voice echoed like a string of pearly bells. “Begin your hunt.”
With that, Wolf bounded across the field after the youth, a howl thundering through the valley. His shadowed body swept over the remains of the newly dead and their useless, shattered weapons.
The squire turned and ran for the woods until thick black trunks passed in a blur. He pressed on, the frozen air burning his lungs. He looked once more for his hunter, but could see nothing but the darkening trees. The shadows closed tightly around him and he suddenly realized there was no escape. It was the black body of Wolf that was everywhere at once. The chase was at its end. Wolf buried his sharp teeth in the squire’s neck, tearing out ribbons of vibrant life.
Wolf reveled in the boy’s scream and crunching bones. Lamb, who had trailed behind, laughed to see such sport. Wolf turned and asked, in a voice more growl than speech “Is this music, Lamb?”
“It is to you” she answered.
“Again” Wolf licked the last drop of the youth’s life from his canine jaws. “I want to chase again, little Lamb.”
“There are always more” she whispered. “Until the day there is only Kindred.”
“And then will you run from me?”
Lamb turned back to the battle. “I would never run from you, dear Wolf.”
|A GOOD DEATH
Magga was about to die for the fourteenth time. She had bitten into a rotten apple–yet again. Its putrid flesh had, as always, infected her with carrionshade. The actress went through the motions of stumbling to her death while shouting her final words for all to hear.
“Oh, but how wondrous a dream is life? Only now—too late!—do I wake to see its myriad of splendors,” she bemoaned.
With a puff of smoke and glittering powder, Kindred made a grand entrance upon the stage. As per tradition, they were played by one actor, his head covered by two opposing masks. He approached Magga, the white mask of the Lamb facing her.
“Hark! Do I hear a plea for my keenest arrow? Come, child, let the warmth of your heart fade into the cold embrace of oblivion.”
Magga refused, as she had thirteen times before. Any nuance in her performance was buried beneath the ear-splitting delivery of her scream. On cue, Lamb spun around, revealing the second mask–that of the Wolf.
“There is naught ye can do to stave off thine end,” growled Wolf.
“I am but a poor young maiden! Please, let my piteous cry fall on all four of thine ears.”
The audience seemed enraptured by the unfolding dramatics of the Orphellum Mechanicals. With the twin threats of plague and war on the tongues of those in neighboring protectorates, death dramas were all the rage.
Denji, the actor portraying both Lamb and Wolf, descended upon the young actress, awkwardly baring wooden fangs. Magga offered her neck. At the threat of Wolf’s bite, she triggered the device sewn into her blouse’s collar. Ribbons of red fabric unspooled to the delighted pips and yelps of the audience. They’d gotten what they paid for.
By the time the Mechanicals had staggered back to their wagon and set off in the direction of Needlebrook, there were no stars to be seen. Instead, a veil of clouds stretched across the night sky.
Needlebrook always delivered a good audience, Illusian, the company’s owner and sole dramaturg, explained once more. He staggered around, drunk on his own accolades—as well as the wine Parr had grifted from the locals.
The night wore on, and the troupe had descended into bickering. Tria and Denji lambasted their playwright over the quality of his plots, which fell into a predictable structure: tragedy strikes maiden, death finds maiden, death takes maiden. Illusian argued that complicated plots detracted from a good death scene.
Magga, the youngest of the bunch, agreed with Tria and Denji’s diagnosis, but kept her mouth shut. Had she not stowed away in the wandering troupe’s wagon, she would certainly be somewhere far more miserable. Luckily for her, the Mechanicals had recently lost several actors due to Illusian’s insistence on complete artistic control. Because of his attitude—and obvious mediocrity—they were facing a drought of fresh faces. And so, the Orphellum Mechanicals agreed to contract Magga to die in all their dramatics for the foreseeable future. For which she had been grateful.
Illusian was still smarting from Denji and Tria’s words when he motioned to Parr, their wagoner, to stop and make camp. The inebriated auteur set out his bedroll in pride of place next to the wagon. He then threw the rest of the bedding into the long grass nearby.
“Ungrateful players can sleep in the wilds,” Illusian spat, “where they shall hopefully find their manners.”
The rest of the troupe built a fire and swapped stories. Denji and Tria had fallen asleep in each other’s arms while whispering potential names for their unborn child into each other’s ears. They had nattered on about the day the traveling company would stop in Jandelle, a town so perfect and peaceful they would set aside their vagabond ways to raise their child.
Magga moved closer to the crackling fire so its pops and whistles would drown out the irksome affections of her traveling companions.
But sleep never came. Instead, Magga tossed and turned, thinking about the looks on the audience’s faces as the coiled spurts of blood unfurled from her neckline. A pretty maiden struck dead by her own naïveté was all the theatrical pomp Illusian could muster, but the crowd lusted after the gruesome façade.
Eventually, she left her bedroll and set out into the woods to soothe her unsettled mind.
In the dead of night, Magga came upon a low grassy mound with slabs of standing stone at its base. Although she could not read the inscriptions, her fingers traced the familiar etching of Kindred’s twin masks. This was a place of the dead, a burial site built long ago.
She felt a chill on the back of her neck that compelled her to look up. She was not alone. Magga immediately understood what she saw, for she’d encountered a crude impersonation of them night after night. But poor Denji couldn’t begin to instill the dread washing over Magga. Before her, perched on a weathered barrow-archway, was Lamb herself, flanked by her ever-faithful counterpart, Wolf.
“I hear a beating heart!” said Wolf, his black eyes twinkling with delight. “May I have it?”
“Perhaps,” replied Lamb. “I sense she is afraid. Speak, beautiful one. Tell us your name.”
“I-I would have yours first,” stammered Magga, stepping backward. Her slow escape was halted by the speedy Wolf, who materialized unsettlingly close behind her.
He spoke directly in her ear. “We have many names.”
“In the West, I am Ina to his Ani,” said Lamb. “In the East, Farya to his Wolyo. But we are Kindred everywhere. I am always Lamb to Wolf, and he is always Wolf to Lamb.”
Wolf reared up and sniffed at the air.
“She is playing a boring game,” said Wolf. “Let us play a new game, one of chasing and running and biting.”
“She is not playing, dear Wolf,” said the Lamb. “She is frightened and has lost her own name. It hides behind her lips, afraid to come out. Worry not, dear child, I have found your name. We know it as you know us, Magga.”
“P-please,” Magga stammered. “Tonight is not a very good night for—”
Wolf’s great pink tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth, and he proceeded to cackle.
“All nights are good nights for pouncing,” said Wolf, laughing.
“All days are, too,” Lamb said. “With light comes a clear shot.”
“There is no moon tonight!” cried Magga. She used what Illusian had taught her—to gesture grand, so those in the back could see her movements. “It is hidden by a blanket of clouds, tucked away from my eyes and yours. Without the moon, what would be the last thing I would see?”
“We see the moon,” replied Lamb, as she caressed her fabled bow. “It is always there.”
“There are no stars!” said Magga, trying again, this time gesturing smaller and speaking quieter. “No menagerie of twinkling diamonds, glittering in the midnight hue. What more beautiful view could one hope for whence one meets Lamb and Wolf?”
“This Magga-thing is playing a new game,” growled Wolf. “It is called ‘stalling.’”
Wolf stopped moving and cocked his head to the side. He turned his sideways snout toward Magga before speaking. “Can we play ‘Chasing the Magga-Thing and Bite Her to Bits?’?” Wolf clacked his fangs together loudly for effect.
“Let us ask her,” said Lamb. “Magga! Do you prefer Wolf’s chase, or my arrow?”
Magga was trembling now. Her eyes raced to take in every last detail of the world around her. It wasn’t such a bad place to depart. There was grass. There were trees. There was the ancient archway. There was stillness to the air.
“I would prefer Lamb’s arrow,” she said, looking at the rough crusts of bark on the trees. “I’ll imagine myself climbing to the highest boughs, like when I was a child. Only this time, I will never stop climbing. Is that what it is like to go with you?”
“No,” said Lamb, “though it is a nice thought. Fear not, little maiden, we are just having our fun. You have come to us tonight; we have not come for you.”
“I cannot chase Magga-thing,” said Wolf, with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “But there are other things nearby. Other things ripe for the chasing and the biting. Hurry, Lamb. I am hungry.”
“For now, know that your theatrics have pleased us, and we will watch them until the day we meet again.”
Wolf passed over Magga and disappeared into the woods. The shadowy beast snaked away through fields of tall grass. Magga looked back toward the weathered barrow. Lamb was gone.
The actress fled.
When Magga returned to the encampment, she found it in utter ruin. The wagon she had only just begun to call home had been ransacked and reduced to a smoldering husk. Bits of clothing and ruined props lay strewn across the campsite.
She found Denji’s body near where he’d slept. He had died protecting Tria, whose corpse lay behind him. Judging from the trails of blood, their deaths had not been slow. They had dragged themselves toward each other, their fingers entwined in one last caress before death.
Magga noticed that Illusian had managed to kill two of the bandits before being burnt to a crisp along with Parr in the wagon.
The only thing that remained untouched were Denji’s Lamb and Wolf masks. Magga picked them up and held them in her hands. She placed the Lamb mask over her own eyes and heard the voice of Wolf.
“Chase the Magga-thing.”
The maiden ran the distance to Needlebrook, never once looking back.
The Golden Round was filled to the brim with a sea of twinkling eyes, all glittering in excitement at the velvet curtain. The king sat in the theater with the queen and their advisers, all eagerly awaiting the onset of the dramatics. Everyone hushed as the black curtain lifted to reveal the actors.
Magga sat in a quiet dressing room under the stage. She heard the crowd fall silent as she studied herself in the mirror. The luster of youth had faded from her eyes years ago, and left her with a long shock of silver running through her hair.
“Madame!” said the stagehand. “You’re not in costume yet.”
“No, child,” Magga said, “I only dress at the last moment.”
“It is the last moment,” said the young stagehand, holding the two final pieces of Magga’s costume: the same Lamb and Wolf masks from her days with the Orphellum Mechanicals.
“May your performance be blessed tonight,” the stagehand said.
Magga prepared to leave for the stage. She slipped the masks over her head. The old chill from the dark barrow crept down her spine. She welcomed it—as always.
She enthralled the audience as she glided onto the stage, embodying Lamb’s graceful movements. She thrilled the crowd with her rendition of Wolf’s playful savagery. She, as the twin deaths personified, eased the suffering of her fellow actors, or ripped it from their throats, until the crowd stood on its feet and erupted in thunderous applause.
It was true. All audiences loved a good death, and they loved Magga’s more than any other.
Even the king and queen were on their feet in praise of her work.
But Magga heard no applause and saw no ovations. She didn’t feel the stage beneath her feet, nor the hands of her fellow mummers in hers as they bowed low. All she felt was a sharp pain in her chest.
When Magga looked out over the audience, every single face was either a lamb or a wolf.
Tarnold knew the performance was doomed when all his playwright’s tricks were exhausted. His players were lost to performance jitters. Perhaps the text was to blame, or the superstitions surrounding the performance of a dead scribe’s unfinished work, but each mummer had succumbed to one form of unprofessionalism or another.
Artlo, who played a character known only as the Philosopher, wouldn’t stop dying. Each time he pantomimed his last breath in the company of that kindred pair of macabre spirits known as the Lamb and the Wolf, he prolonged his death rattles to the point of absurdity. This time, Nenni had laughed so hard her Lamb’s mask fell off her face. It landed on the ground with a loud crack.
Emile removed his Wolf’s mask. Its sharp, jagged edges were chafing his jowls to pulp. He winced in pain—Tarnold knew he was about to ask for the poultice again.
“Stop!” Tarnold said. He did not need to yell. The Mummers’ Round’s renowned acoustics ensured even the eaves-perchers, with their half-copper admission, could hear the softest sigh with clarity.
The old theater rested near the lord castellan’s hillfort and provided a nice glimpse of the dark forest. On banquet nights like tonight, nobles descended from the castellan’s manse to drunkenly take in the mummers’ theatrics. A displeased crowd of drunken nobles was worse than the humiliation of a failed play.
The actors released their poses and turned to face their chief dramatist.
Tarnold rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers and looked to the wings, where a mustachioed man, dressed in black finery, leaned against one of the story stones.
“Duarte,” Tarnold said to the well-dressed man. “Buy me as much time as you can.”
Duarte nodded in understanding. “I’ll hold the audience until I hear your sign.”
“Do not disturb us, even if Lady Erhyn herself shakes off her malaise and demands a preview. We are on the verge, Duarte. We must fall together to rise together!”
“Rise we shall, Tarnold. With the gust of life.” Duarte kissed the palm of his hand and placed it on the story stone for good luck. He disappeared from the stage and exited the theater. Silence pervaded while everyone waited on the sound of the heavy bolt sliding shut.
Once they were sealed within the Mummers’ Round’s walls, with the sun dipping closer to the evening, Tarnold unleashed his temper.
“Ask a Great City boy for water, and a Great City boy will bring you fire. There is to be one death, and one death alone, Artlo.” He turned to Nenni. “Stop laughing at Artlo’s nincompoopery, you daughter of Skaggorn. Shake off your provincial humors and exude the cold menace of death.” Finally, he pointed to Emile. “I can see your blood dribbling down your cheek. Dab your cheeks.”
“Please, let me fix some padding to the inside of this accursed wolf mask.”
“Project through the pain! Did Soates complain while writing her Kindred Fables on her deathbed? No. Be honored! One of her own heirlooms chafes your cheek.”
“This one doesn’t fit me,” Nenni said. She had picked her lamb mask up off the stage floor. “It keeps sliding off.”
“Then use straps!” Tarnold said, pulling off his own belt to throw it at Nenni’s feet.
Endless hours of rehearsals had done nothing to prepare the troupe for the performance of Soates’ final, unfinished story. Part of that, Tarnold had accepted as his own fault. As the chief dramatist of Alderburg’s greatest—and only—theater, the grim task of finishing her story fell to him.
“Lambs in the Orchard was Soates’ final gush of madness. The very last of her spark is here, in our hands... and you all choose to desecrate her memory, picking at it for your own vanity and comfort. She spent her final moments coaxing truths from the impending nevermore. Had death not stilled her hand while writing this very scene, perhaps we would all have a far greater understanding of our own brief and tragic existence!”
The actors remained silent, chastened even, until Artlo cleared his throat and spoke up.
“With respect,” the gangly Demacian started. Tarnold knew Artlo meant the opposite, and rolled his eyes to show it. “Perhaps an unfinished work is simply not meant to be finished by another.”
Tarnold sensed an attack on his integrity. They had had this argument over and again. “Are you suggesting that this production is a work of sacrilege?”
“We seem unable to replicate the emotions of a master writing against time.”
“Are you mad? We are out of time!” Tarnold pointed to the dwindling rays of sunlight piercing the wooden walls of the theater. A chilly sensation swept through him.
“Perhaps, we perform the bits we know and leave the unfinished unperformed. Is that not a better way to honor Soates? You must acknowledge, Tarnold, this,” Artlo said, pointing around himself, “does not work!”
Artlo was right. They had failed to recreate the spark found in the prolific bard’s other fables. Their ailing patron, a Soates devotee, expected the impossible—an ending to an unfinished work. In desperation, Tarnold had authorized Duarte to travel to King Jarvan II’s Great City to the west, and hunt down the bard’s original masks. They were ancient and therefore costly.
Tarnold’s head slumped, his shoulders followed, and then he was on his back, struggling to breathe. His heart raced against the quickening hour.
“We have to cancel the performance.” He rubbed his forehead, trying to eke out some last shred of luck, but finding only sweat. “Worse, we’ll be forced to offer refunds.” He gasped out. “We already spent the gold!”
“It’s probably not a good time to mention that the lamb mask is broken.”
The color drained from Tarnold’s face. “What?”
“When it fell off my face, it broke. It was an accident!” Nenni held the pieces of the mask in her hand. One of the wooden ears had snapped off. “I think I can strap it back together.”
“This is utterly majestic.” Tarnold almost laughed. “That’s what we spent the gold on. They were Soates’ original masks. They’re on loan!”
“She said it was an accident,” said Emile.
“Let me think.” Tarnold stood up to take in the theater. Its storied round had existed for centuries. The story stones were the foundation of the Mummers’ Round. The circle of towering flagstones had stood in the theater’s location long before anyone settled the Nockmirch. Over the years, wooden viewing platforms were erected to allow more a better view of the theatrics and rituals performed inside the round. Performers and singers notched the pillars with their sigils, leaving their mark upon hallowed grounds.
The theater had been home to Tarnold during many difficult times. Now, under his stewardship, it was the source of all his sorrows.
“A broken mask tells two stories,” said a voice from the middle balcony, reserved for the wealthiest nobles. Even in his loneliest moments, Tarnold dared not rest his head on those fine cushions. “Three, if you consider the tale of the maskmaker... Alas, no one wishes to hear that story.”
“We agreed for no visitors during rehearsals!” Tarnold said to his performers.
“She’s been here all night,” Nenni said. “We thought she was with you.”
Had she? It was possible. Tarnold had battled insomnia for weeks. His attention snapped to the woman in the golden seats, which were reserved for the Lady Erhyn herself. Two summers ago, King Jarvan II’s little heir had sat upon those velvet cushions to enjoy Tarnold’s rendition of The King of All Fishes. The boy had clapped loudest as the final curtain fell.
“Who are you?” Tarnold said. “Step into the light.”
The woman came forward, but the light illuminated little of her mystery. Her eyes were distant stars shining through mist. She wore a ghostly half-mask with a curious twirl of a twig sprouting off the top. Upon that sprig was a single dark leaf. Her elegant gait sang of nobility, and Tarnold finally recognized the crest on her gown.
It was their patron, recovered from her malaise.
“My lady Erhyn, I did not recognize you! Please forgive me.” Tarnold offered a respectable bow. “Tell me, what mask is this that graces your face? It is familiar yet beyond memory.”
“It is made of eldlock.” She spoke in a calm voice. Her words were clear, even as she whispered. “The stories tell that any wood removed from an eldlock will continue to blossom and flower in season with its mothertree, as long as it still stands. No distance may sever their bond.”
“It is exquisite, my lady.”
“I have interrupted,” Lady Erhyn said, gesturing to the actors. “Perhaps I could suggest a change.”
“Why, of course!” Tarnold fidgeted with his hands. He looked to the wings, and to the stage. The mummers were keeping their mouths shut, for once. “Advice from our favorite patron is always welcome.”
“All actors were masked in Soates’ day—perhaps all must don masks to channel the strange spirits she saw at death’s door, as she scribbled furiously into the night’s embrace.”
“I like that!” Artlo said. “Where is the casket of masks? There were others in that trunk,” he called as he vanished behind the stage.
“Now, wait, let’s talk this—”
Tarnold was silenced by the sight of the gaunt lady with the eldlock mask clasping her hands together. There was something off about their benefactor.
Before Tarnold could put his finger on it, Artlo returned onstage, dragging a trunk that was as long as he was tall. The name Q. W. Soates was engraved on its long side. Suddenly, it struck Tarnold how much the old trunk resembled a coffin.
Artlo lifted open the heavy trunk’s lid. “Smells like dead poets,” he said.
The man really has no taste, Tarnold thought.
A heavy creak of rusted hinges reverberated through the round like the howl of a starving dog. The other two actors craned their necks to peer inside.
“Before you choose,” the woman in the eldlock mask said. “Please heed these next words wisely. The hour is late, the show waits to play, and tonight can be truly memorable if all choose the mask that is right for them, for the spirits we become...”
“...Inhabit us,” Emile completed.
“The mummers’ tenet,” Nenni said.
“Whatever flavor of madness this is,” Artlo said, a grin spreading on his face, “I want to be a part of it. Come, Tarnold. Even you must agree that at this late stage, we must perform with the gust of life.”
“Intrepid,” the lady said.
Tarnold heard the hint of a strange smile on her face. He couldn’t remember... had the nobles’ balcony not been empty when Duarte left? The whole theater was empty... Lady Erhyn struck him as different now, too. She seemed gaunt and haunted. Perhaps the noble lady Erhyn hadn’t entirely shaken off her affliction. The evening chill was settling in.
“My lady, I am most pleased at your recovery. Perhaps I can fetch you a cloak?”
“Now, this is the mask to honor a forgotten poet,” Artlo said.
Lady Erhyn waved off Tarnold’s offer, turning to Artlo. “An ominous choice. The Vulture picks at what remains, and when nothing is left... it flies on to perches far removed from here and waits for the next meal.”
“Pecking at Soates’ legacy sounds like a feast.” Artlo turned around and showed off his guise: a bone-white mask with a long, hooked beak. The gangly man resembled a carrion bird.
The gaunt lady approached the stage. She seemed so ancient, yet hale and graceful in her moves. Her skin did not look like flesh. It reminded Tarnold of plaster, after it had been set and smoothed. Her hair was the very night itself, radiating outward in a wavering embrace. He felt as if the breath were stabbed out of his lungs. How could he have ever mistaken the two?
“You’re not Lady Erhyn.”
The actors were oblivious to Tarnold’s epiphany. A chilling swoon descended upon his heart. Its beating pulsed loudly in his ears, nearly drowning out the actors’ words.
“Switch masks with me,” Nenni said to Emile. “Your soft skin can’t wear such a handsome mask. My skin’s weathered worse, I’ll reckon.”
“If you want to wear that agonizing thing...” Emile offered the wolf mask to his stage partner. “I mourn for your lovely cheekbones.”
The two slipped on their swapped masks.
The walls whispered as a gust of wind swept over the Mummers’ Round. Shutters clacked shut. Tarnold heard voices in that swift and swirling breeze.
“Heartbeats, Lamb. Here,” a deep voice growled.
Tarnold looked for the source, but could only see his mummers. They seemed to have forgotten all about him. Then, in his left ear, sang another voice.
“Bits of light,
Dancing in the dark,
Playing on, playing on, playing on...”
The words flew through Tarnold with a jolt. On the stage, he saw Nenni and Emile, hand in hand, wearing each other’s masks. Then he saw the otherwordly words were coming from the actors’ mouths.
“Yes,” Emile said, shifting his voice up to a lilting and haunted falsetto. “I see my darlingest Wolf now.”
“Ahhh.” Nenni let out a relieved growl, her voice guttural and deep. “That feels better, little Lamb.” The actor dropped down on all fours, and stretched lower than a human should be able to. “Is it time to play chase?”
“When the veil lifts,
You shall claw and bite,
My arrow swift, and on to the next act we go.”
Tarnold crossed the round, keeping his eyes fixed on the gaunt lady. “What trickery is this? Please, leave us be!”
The woman turned to Tarnold. “I am not your patron,” she said.
Tarnold looked to his masked actors. “All of you, clear the stage. Go home. The performance is over.” He raised his voice, shouting toward the barred entrance. “Duarte!”
“Tarnold...” The woman who was not Lady Erhyn turned and looked at him with the enormity of her vast, glimmering eyes. Even behind the eldlock mask, they shone with a light born of darkness. Their eerie sheen pulled Tarnold’s attention out of his body. Whoever this was, he knew her and did not; feared her and sought her. Running from her felt foolish, and reasonable. Without deciding to, he walked toward the stage.
“Take the masks off,” he said. “Now. This is madness... This play is cursed! Don’t you see? What if, in the conjuring, Soates did not happen to die while writing the play, the act of writing Lambs in the Orchard was itself what killed her... The narrative itself is a curse!”
It was not the gaunt lady, Nenni’s wolf nor Emile’s lamb that replied. Artlo, or whatever spoke through Artlo, answered in a screeching voice. He spread his arms high and stood upon one leg, like a carrion bird.
“The author waits for my beak,” he said. The corners of his lips cracked and split open. “Soates is truly dead... as none remember her now as she once was.” Tears ran down Artlo’s stretched cheeks. The voice stilled Tarnold’s heart and stopped him in his stride. “Soates flies in my wake, soon lost and forgotten. Words on a page. A name on the wind. Shreds... nothing more.”
“Shreds of Soates is still Soates,” said the gaunt lady.
“He ceased the performance...” Whatever spoke through poor Artlo didn’t care how much pain it caused the man’s body. The actor’s arm violently wrenched forward and stretched, its bony hand pointing an accusatory finger at Tarnold. “And he wears no mask...”
“You are so close to Soates,” the woman said to the dramatist. “Choose a mask, and see her final scene come alive.”
He thought about running from the Mummers’ Round. He pictured himself fleeing up to the lord castellan’s fort on the hill, or into town. What would he find in Lady Erhyn’s house? He looked to the gaunt woman. The sun had almost set. The evening cacophony of insects and night birds chirped out their greetings to the coming night. How many nights had he dreamt of Soates’ final moments, of the final scene...
“Everyone must wear a mask,” the woman said.
Mouth agape, Tarnold nodded in agreement with the woman in the eldlock mask, that dark leaf dancing in an unfelt breeze.
“If I must choose a mask, then I confess, I know the one I would select is not in that trunk, nor is it on the stage.” He felt life return to his limbs. His bones were stiff and unwieldy... but that was a temporary condition.
The gaunt woman smiled. “You wish to wear my mask? That is a most excellent decision, dear Tarnold, a man of creativity and curiosity. Come and remove it from my face.”
“I shall take your mask, and become you. May the spirits we become...”
“...Inhabit us deeply and truly,” she finished.
When Tarnold did, and placed the living eldlock mask on his face, he saw, finally, the true ending of Soates’ play. It was flawless and terrible, life-giving and breathtaking.
“Places, my friends and fellows,” he said. “Our tale waits for no one. Let us fall together to rise as one, and sing our harmonies with the gust of life.”
“One last gust,” replied Lamb, Wolf, and Vulture.
And together, they played.
Duarte had kept the news about Lady Erhyn hidden from Tarnold all day, even though the truth of her passing threatened to burst forth from his lips. Her malaise carried her off in kindred company before dawn, or so the new lady of House Erhyn had said. The news could break the morale of the entire troupe. Tarnold, he knew, would take it exceptionally hard.
But just as sorrow weighed down Duarte’s heart, there was a brightness, an exciting turn of good fortune beyond the tragedy. Lady Erhyn, on her deathbed, bade her estate to fund the Mummers’ Round, and Tarnold specifically, in perpetuity.
However, as the hour drew later, the inebriated nobles grew weary of the wait. Belligerent and insulted nobility often led to lashings, mockings, and worse: sanctions against future endeavors.
As Duarte was about to address the amassed watchers, daubed with ashes and charcoal in mourning of Lady Erhyn, he heard Tarnold’s signal to open the doors.
He rushed to the gate and removed the heavy deadbolt. The audience rushed in and stopped short as they found the actors posed upon a stage covered in wilted black-stemmed roses. Their buzzing anticipation was hushed by the macabre tableau. They quickly and quietly found their seats. Lady Erhyn’s seat of honor was the only empty spot in the house.
The actors held their strenuous positions while the noble audience waited for Soates’ long-lost and unfinished masterpiece to finally begin.
Duarte saw no sign of Tarnold. It was unusual for the dramatist to desert his cast on opening night—normally he would greet the audience before watching from the wings with a bottle of wine.
He turned to inspect the opening stance. Nenni and Emile were locked in a mortal embrace. Nenni, wearing the wolf mask, held an arrow that seemed to stick directly into Emile’s side. Emile’s hands were wrapped around Nenni’s throat.
Artlo, who was supposed to be playing a philosopher, now inexplicably wore a mask that resembled a dirge crow. He perched atop a prop tree, suspended over the other pair, his arms outstretched like great wings. Dead flowers hung from his arms like feathers.
They weren’t even breathing...
The audience stayed silent, eagerly awaiting action, but Duarte realized something was amiss. Backstage, Duarte checked the dramatist’s favorite perch. There was no bottle of wine, and no Tarnold, either.
Instead there was the last surviving copy of Lambs in the Orchard.
He thumbed to the last page. The story remained unfinished, but there was a new line written in Tarnold’s steady hand.
The end is not for those who wear no masks. She showed me, and it was beautiful.
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